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At last: American roundy-round racing makes sense

Publication: 
Bryan Edwards
chiefofficersnet

I'm highly critical of American style oval racing. It's far too orchestrated by "IndyCar" or "Nascar" and it's boring unless there's a crash (and who wants to wish for crashes that cause injury or death?). After all, who wants to sit through 185 laps only for a crash to force the "full course yellow" or, even, "safety car" that sets up the cars for the only bit that really matters: the last ten laps or so to the finish. I've watched it, on and off, for several decades and it's almost always Dullsville personified. Until this year's Indy 500. Oh, how I wish they could all be like this.

There is much about IndyCars that I really want to like. The speeds are insane, the science behind the aero is mindblowing (hehe). Oddly, I like the simplicity of the cars (a single element front wing, a small, single element rear wing). The racing is often close and there is, by the standards of most European-spec racing, an extraordinary amount of overtaking. The way lapped cars drop to the back under a safety car by driving through the pits is a lesson that F1 should learn. But the tv coverage is completely awful: hugely disjointed due to advertising breaks and a commentary that is over-excited and so full of clichés that the periods where there is no commentary are a relief. And then there are the, by the standards of Aussie and European series astonishingly poor pit crews. But the thing that makes it unbearable are the all-too-frequent crashes which result in the race organisers being able to manipulate the racing and, arguably, the result through the use of "full course yellows" and the safety car.

And yet, for this year's Indy 500, the commentators were less offensive than usual - perhaps because they actually had something to commentate on. There were remarkably few crashes meaning remarkably few safety cars. When they did happen, they involved multiple cars, substantially reducing the field that had, until about 25 laps to go, only lost a couple of cars. The relatively long oval meant that cars spread out so overtaking required bravery and decisiveness but not crazy weaving. Batches of cars raced around often three abreast. Pit strategies were as varied as the number of cars. The lack of safety cars, and the lack of expected rain, meant that the pre-race play-book was in the bin within fifteen laps. With only one type of tyre, meaning that the choice is new (Americans call them "sticker") or scrubbed, maybe even used, tyres, the only strategies are fuel and whether it's best to be in front of or behind another car.

The close racing meant that a leader could go into the pits, refuel, change tyres and return to the track and lose 20 places. With only 30 cars starting, that's a lot. And yet, those cars would fight their way back, overtaking, not simply waiting for those in front to pit.

At the end, the top three were within a few metres of each other. Yes, the field had bunched up and pit stops had happened during a safety car period but the last dash was almost 20 laps. Incredibly, the engine notes through the on-board cameras shows that the leaders, in clear air, were running flat out for almost the entire lap.

The wind-rush off the walls, both top and bottom, provides a complex mix of currents, some of which help, some of which destabilise. From the Long Beach race a few weeks ago where the drivers were sawing at the wheel due to a lack of front end grip, around the Indy Oval, the best cars were precise, their turn-in exact and their wider running perfect. Those simple wings do what F1 wings don't: they allow simple in-race adjustment and allow cars to follow closely even near the walls. The lack of aero parts hanging off the car must contribute. Indeed, the only big aero piece that's obvious is the floor which works well but looks like a toy car designer decided that it was cheaper not to trim the floor to match the bodywork. So, looks rubbish, works superbly.

There were some 300,000 people at Indy for the race which was on the third race weekend, involving most of the same drivers, in a row plus qualifying week. Relative to population size, it's roughly the same as a Silverstone crowd but they only go for three days.

I can't say that I've fallen in love with roundy-round racing but I can say that this single event has made me think I might watch again. Let's hope this was not a flash in the pan. It was seriously enjoyable, edge of the seat, sometimes heart in the mouth, stuff.

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