The INDYCAR State of the Union presentation was filled with new race rules that will bring about very visible changes throughout the 2011 IZOD IndyCar Series season. The most visible of these will be the new double-file restarts that will be implemented on oval tracks. However, a number of other changes will also significantly impact on how next season plays out. Brian Barnhart, INDYCAR President of Competition and Operations, spoke with More Front Wing at yesterday’s presentation to clarify some of the questions that have been lingering regarding some of these new rules.
The rule that has drawn the most attention is, of course, the new double-file restart system. This rule will place the cars in 2×2 formation for each restart in the same formation as the race start. NASCAR also uses this style of restart but, unlike NASCAR, the IICS will not remove lapped cars from the formation and shuffle them to the back of the field.
When asked why the lapped cars would remain in place, Barnhart addressed the fairness of competition. “I don’t want to create a rule that can be manipulated by multi-car teams to affect the outcome of the event,” he states. “In saying that, I’ve always had the opinion that the leader has earned whatever lapped cars are between him and the second-place car if there are any. If you have a rule that automatically gets those guys out and you have five lapped cars between the first and second place cars and that second-place car [owner] happens to be running two or three one-offs at Indy, he can sacrifice one of those cars and say, ‘Hey, stop on the backstretch, cause me a yellow, and we’ll tow you in out of the way.’ Then those lapped cars suddenly come out of the way, and all of a sudden that guy is right back up there.”
Barnhart points to a specific incident in the 1991 Indianapolis 500 where Michael Andretti needed a late-race caution to have one last attempt at catching Rick Mears. That caution was provided when his teammate, father Mario, conveniently stopped at the entrance to the pit lane. Had there been lapped cars between Mears and the younger Andretti, Barnhart believes such an incident would never have happened.
Ultimately though, says Barnhart, it comes down to a balance between the entertainment aspect of the event and the integrity of the sport. While Barnhart believes this is the best compromise between the two, he says the drivers may not be quite on board yet. “Most of them are looking at it from the position that they are leading [the race],” Barnhart says. “They feel like they’ve worked and earned that position.” Barnhart points to the differences between racing and traditional sports as their justification. “Every game played [in stick-and-ball sports] has one winner and one loser. Racing is different. When you start the Indy 500, you have one winner and 32 losers. In a very successful season in IndyCar racing, you could win three or four out of 17 races. Three-for-14 record isn’t a very good percentage in stick-and-ball sports, but in our sport, that’s a very successful season. That shows you how special success is in IndyCar racing. When you win, or you’re in a position to win, you’re all the more protective of [that position] and don’t want something that can be manipulated and can take away what you’ve earned to put yourself in a position to win.”
Barnhart said the IICS has not decided whether to implement the double-file restarts at Indianapolis or whether they will debut at Texas Motor Speedway for the Firestone Twin 275s. Part of the apprehension comes from the drivers being unfamiliar with the system and trying to implement it on their biggest stage. “If we don’t do it well,” Barnhart says, “we come off looking inept, and that is not a good reflection on us.”
Barnhart is not only hoping to change the restart during the race but is also hoping to clean up the formations as the start of each race — an issue that has been long criticized by fans and media alike. Unfortunately, says Barnhart, the issue isn’t as simple as making the drivers do another pace lap. He points to the aborted start of the 2009 Indianapolis 500 as a near-disaster and a consequence of making the decision to wave off the start of the race. “We nearly had the biggest accident in the history of the place because half the field is going and half see the yellow and aren’t going,” he states. “There just is nowhere to hide on a 50’ wide straightaway when you are three wide and 11 rows deep.” Still, Barnhart understands the importance of having a good start at Indianapolis and promises to do all he can to make sure it is proper. “It’s not an easy situation, but I’m definitely going to work as hard as I can to get the formation to be aesthetically pleasing and what it should be to honor the event.”
In another change, new pit selection rules for 2011 will shake up pit stall locations from event to event. Prior to 2011, INDYCAR rules stipulated that pit selection be based on entrant points leading into the event. In 2011 and beyond, IICS teams will select their pit location in order of qualification for the previous like-circuit event, i.e. the order at an oval will be based on the qualification order at the previous oval event, and road and street pit selection will be based on the qualification order from the most recent road or street event. Barnhart stressed that this rule affects the pit selection order, not necessarily the actual pit location itself — meaning that the second-place qualifier at the previous event may not necessarily choose the second pit stall at an event but may opt to take a spot closer to pit in to have clear entry or exit.
When asked whether controversy concerning the advantage of having the pit stall closest to pit out has been addressed, Barnhart says he believes much of it has died down after a new procedure put into place last year. Whenever possible, INDYCAR timing and scoring officials have moved the end of the pit speed limit zone much further away from the end of the pit lane, forcing the driver in pit stall one to reach the full pit speed limit before merging with other cars. This has generally eliminated the substantial advantage drivers had in that position where they previously only had to roll a very short distance to reach the blend line, usually at speeds well below the pit speed limit. Barnhart estimates that the unfair advantage has been resolved at about 90% of the events and says that complaints were down significantly last year over previous years.
Another area of discussion over the past several years has centered on having races finish under caution. Barnhart says that approximately 93% of the races in the IZOD IndyCar Series have finished under green flag, a percentage that is nearly equal to that of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. While NASCAR uses its green-white-checkered system to force races to finish under green-flag conditions, Barnhart believes that, given this statistic, the risk of finishing only a handful more races under green does not sufficiently outweigh the risk of wrecking more cars.
Furthermore, altering the race distance begins to truly affect the integrity of the event. Barnhart points to the finish of the 2010 Indianapolis 500 as the perfect example. When Mike Conway crashed on lap 198, a significant clean-up ensued (which included a substantial amount of repair to the catch fencing). Even if the caution had been relatively brief — say seven or eight laps plus another couple of laps of racing — it’s easily conceivable that adding length to the race could be equivalent to adding 25 or more miles to many events (which could be nearly half of a fuel run), a point which Barnhart says starts to encroach on the race’s integrity. “It’s the Indy 500,” says Barnhart, “not the Indy 515 or 520. What if [the leader's] engine blows during those extra laps? Well, he was leading at 500 miles and 502.5 and 505 and 507.5 but just didn’t make it to 520. Is that fair?”
One desire that many fans have — to see the return of record speeds at Indianapolis — does not appear likely for 2011 according to Barnhart. When asked what it would take to make such an increase in speeds possible, Barnhart says there are many factors that affect how fast the cars can go. “It’s engines. It’s tires. It’s gears. It’s fuel. There are a number of components. If you’re going to make those kinds of changes, it’s a pretty significant and complicated situation. To make that significant of a change to run that fast, you’d probably have to do a completely different engine in terms of their capacity. You’d probably have to change cranks, rods and pistons, fuel mapping, maybe take RPMs into consideration. Nobody has gears to run that fast down the front straightaway. We haven’t even had a conversation with Firestone to see if the tires as built are capable of running those speeds at venues we run at now. Anytime you talk about doing something like that, it’s not a ‘flip-of-the-lightswitch,’ easy thing to do.”
Still, Barnhart understands that fans want to see higher speed numbers and realizes that 230 mph seems to be a magic threshold that is important to them. Given decent weather during the Month of May, he believes that number is certainly achievable. But as far setting a new speed record in 2011, Barnhart cautions, “I haven’t been told in the role that I’m in that that is what we are going to be doing.”
With all of these changes, 2011 is shaping up to be a much more interesting and entertaining year than many people had originally envisioned. With a bit of luck, these rule changes will go off without a hitch and the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season can see focus turned to the new cars and engines as they make their debut.