By Christopher DeHarde, Staff Writer
If there ever was a Rubik’s Cube of an oval, it would have to be Pocono Raceway.
A two and a half mile superspeedway with three straightaways of differing lengths and corners of differing radii and banking gives every engineer throughout the Indy car paddock their biggest oval racing setup challenge of the year.
The No. 18 Dale Coyne Racing with Vasser Sullivan entry performed well last year at Pocono. Driver Sebastien Bourdais finished fourth with race engineer Craig Hampson helping get the setup right, but for 2019 there are some changes to the universal aero kit that INDYCAR mandated for 2018.
There are new front and rear wing wickers that the teams can add to generate more downforce to help the cars turn. However, what may work for the car in one part of the track might not work in another part of the track.
“Usually we have to carry a lot of front wing aero balance to get it to turn in Turn 1,” said Hampson. “But then it can be pretty neutral in Turn 3, so getting it so that it’s tolerable through all three corners is the challenge of it.”
Picking the correct amount of downforce will depend primarily on track conditions. How sunny the weather is, temperature, humidity, and air density all factor into how much downforce the teams will pick for qualifying and the race.
“I think you’ll find most people do sort of hone in on a similar solution,” said Hampson. “You’re not totally boxed in at Pocono because like at Indianapolis we have the adjustable rear wing. Let’s say we’ve started out carrying too much drag, we can trim it off or if the car does have a problem in traffic we can add downforce.”
Track conditions aren’t just affected by weather, however. NASCAR raced at Pocono Raceway on July 28th, and during the weekend the sanctioning body laid down some PJ1 Trackbite compound on the track surface to increase grip for the stock cars. There’s no telling how much of that compound will still be on the surface and how that will affect the way the cars grip the track surface.
Since the Indy cars and stock cars run different lines around Pocono, there’s the possibility that the Indy cars will cross over the compound multiple times over the course of a lap, especially since the compound was added to the third lanes of the first and final turn and the second lane of the Tunnel Turn.
“If that stuff is still out there, this could become really interesting, I don’t know,” said Hampson. “I’m hoping they just wear it all away and we don’t have to worry about it.”
Because Pocono is a superspeedway, qualifications is all about power and reducing both aerodynamic drag and mechanical friction. While similar to qualifications for the Indianapolis 500, there isn’t the same level of preparation for Pocono as there is for Indianapolis.
Primarily, it’s down to cost. Preparing a gearbox to qualify at Indianapolis has a large cost to it, same for new wheel bearings and the reward for being on pole at Pocono isn’t nearly as much as the Indianapolis 500 pole.
The reward difference is another contributing factor to how on the edge the cars are set up. Many younger drivers might run the car a little closer to the edge to try and qualify up front but some more experienced drivers may not be on the ragged edge of adhesion.
“I know with Sebastien we’ll be leaving a decent amount of margin,” said Hampson. “If you look at how he qualified at Pocono last year, it wasn’t nearly as well as we had qualified at Indianapolis last year and the same will probably apply. But in addition, it still is a 500 mile race. If your car is good, you still can start dead last and win the race.”
The ABC Supply 500 is August 18th.