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Firestone’s crucial role in improving IndyCar safety

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Firestone’s crucial role in improving IndyCar safety
By:
Feb 10, 2020, 6:13 PM

The NTT IndyCar Series’ adoption of the Red Bull Advanced Technologies aeroscreen for 2020 created additional work for several companies and individuals. Less well appreciated is the huge effort made by Firestone to absorb the screen's knock-on effect, as David Malsher-Lopez points out.

Enabling IndyCar to introduce the aeroscreen for the start of the 2020 season has required the best and swiftest efforts of Red Bull Advanced Technologies, Pankl, PPG, Aerodine and Dallara. Think curvature, think surfacing, think (and re-think and re-re-think) body and helmet ventilation, think tear-off systems, mounting points, fitment…

There has also been crucial dimensional and practical advice given by the AMR Safety Team including Drs. Jeff Horton and Tim Baughman, IndyCar VP of competition and engineering Bill Pappas and director of aerodynamic development Tino Belli. And there has been vital feedback from NTT Data IndyCar Series champions Scott Dixon, Josef Newgarden, Will Power, Simon Pagenaud and Ryan Hunter-Reay.

Speaking of RHR, his longtime sponsor DHL, too, has been heroic in shipping the various parts around Europe and over to the U.S. in sufficient time to allow all entries in this week’s Spring Training sessions to carry an aeroscreen. And as one can imagine, the teams’ crews will have worked some seriously long hours to get the screens’ fit and finish right by the time their cars hit the track on Tuesday. It’s been a mad rush, to be honest.

Still, praise should also be thrown the way of IndyCar president Jay Frye for insisting on sticking to the timeline and having the screens in place in time for the test. Remember, just one stray wheel, one random-flight wing endplate, one spat up piece of concrete or curbing – consider, say, the regular Lap 1/Turn 1 mêlée at St. Petersburg – could make all these efforts worthwhile. Sooner or later, an IndyCar aeroscreen will save a life or prevent a hideous injury.

But for every action there’s a consequence (often several) and the aeroscreen and its necessary accouterments weigh approximately 65lbs, so have brought an IndyCar’s center of gravity forward by 3-4 percent (although judicious use of ballast can reduce that to 0.6 percent) and has raised that CoG by 15-16mm. This has resulted in a whole lot of extra sums for engineers trying to ameliorate the effects on handling, tire loads and tire life, but, given the spec nature of the cars, they can only do so much. Therefore Firestone Racing has also needed to make changes to the tires themselves. Many changes, in fact.

Firestone’s standing within IndyCar

 

Photo by: Art Fleischmann

While two-car accidents tend to result in the drivers producing two opposing opinions, and a 22-car pile-up would result in 22 different explanations, there is a rare unanimity among IndyCar racers when it comes to Firestone. A supplier that holds a monopoly in any sport will rarely get mentioned by the athletes except in derogatory terms in the event of a screw-up, yet such is the high regard for Firestone in IndyCar that after most sessions the interviewee will single out the Nashville, TN-based brand for praise.

Remember several years ago, when then-series CEO Randy Bernard was negotiating with Firestone over its next contract, and dared to mention other brands as potential replacements? He said afterward that it had been a tactic to apply pressure while he haggled over contract prices, but several drivers took his words at face value. They said or implied that working with a tire manufacturer with less experience of constructing tires for ovals was going to mess with their peace of mind when lapping at 200-plus mph, and urged their team owners toward intransigency. The whole matter would remove a crucial piece from the drivers’ and team owners’ shaky jenga tower of faith in Bernard.

The point is, Firestone is a pillar of the IndyCar community having been exclusive tire supplier for topline U.S. open-wheel racing since 2000 (although parent company Bridgestone branded the rubber used by Champ Car from 2002 to ’08), and while the current contract between tire manufacturer and series runs through 2025, most wish it to continue in perpetuity.

Why Firestone is so valued

At 225-plus mph, most IndyCar drivers wouldn't want to be on anything other than Firestone.

At 225-plus mph, most IndyCar drivers wouldn't want to be on anything other than Firestone.

Photo by: Scott R LePage / Motorsport Images

While some people would like more chassis manufacturers involved, and almost everyone wants to see more engine manufacturers supplying the series, it seems there are very few who desire Firestone to lose its monopoly.

“That wouldn’t work cost-wise,” one very experienced team manager says, “not unless both companies had almost limitless budget. I know people say that suppliers with a monopoly can get away with charging what they want – and there some of that went on here over the past 10 or 12 years, although IndyCar has a pretty firm hand on it these days. But to be honest, I’ve always said the opposite – that we have more to lose if there’s two or more competing companies; that’s when our expenses start mounting up.

“Think about it: it would cost the same for Firestone to bring their gear and equipment and almost the same number of personnel to the races, even if they were supplying just, say, 14 cars instead of 22. So to help balance out this barely reduced cost, they’d have to charge a lot more to the teams that are still with them. That would piss off a lot of team owners and managers because increased tire budget eats into our budget for other stuff. And you can bet the costs for the new rival tire company would be about the same, so that means all the team owners would be mad about how much they’re paying for tires this year compared to last year!

“Then, whatever Firestone saved by making less [sic] tires for the season, they’d spend in R&D trying to make sure they beat whoever they’re up against. You know that, I know that. But that still wouldn’t be enough investment, so they’d have to find money from somewhere else – say, marketing budget and advertising. So everyone loses out because now the tire supplier isn’t helping to market the series and they’re probably gonna stop sponsoring races like St. Pete and Laguna Seca.

“So the short answer to your question is, ‘No, I don’t see there’s any upside to getting another tire company in.’”

For the drivers, a tire war also brings up concerns linked to the aforementioned self-preservation but also competitiveness, as one of the IndyCar aces explained to me a couple of years back.

“I’m not saying anything directed at Firestone, or any of the companies thinking of coming in like Goodyear, Pirelli, Cooper, whoever,” he said. “They’re all professional and good at what they do. But in any battle like that, companies push to the edge a lot more. That’s why you sometimes see a Honda blow up or a Chevy blow up – because they’re trying something that if it works is great, but it might be more fragile: so they’re taking it to the edge and testing it.

“Well that’s fine in an engine, because if it lets go, it just means you lose a session or if you’re very unlucky, a race. It’s a bit different with tires. I wouldn’t want a tire manufacturer pushing so close to the edge of development in case they go over the edge. That’s when you get bad things happening, especially on ovals. We’re already near the edge. Look what happens whenever a race engineer thinks it’s been smart and doesn’t follow what Firestone recommends for tire pressures or cambers and stuff. Something always goes wrong – blisters, sudden deflations and so on – and suddenly you’ve got a car in the wall.

“Another reason [for not having a tire war] is because IndyCar is fairly spec, and the fans love how close it is and so do most of the drivers. If you think about it, any other tire company coming in trying to take on Firestone is going to have so much catching up to do that they’ll never make it, or not for ages. So if four or five teams sign up with that new manufacturer, we’ll suddenly have eight or ten cars that aren’t on the pace most of the time. [He shrugged] That goes against what IndyCar’s been selling everyone on for the last few years – how close the field is. Why risk screwing that up?

“So we just need to keep Firestone sweet and supplying the whole grid. You know, 99.9 percent of the time they get it right, which benefits everyone. And the day they don’t get it right, it’s still the same for everyone and it’s up to drivers and teams to cope with it better than the rest of them.

“Tires is one of the areas that IndyCar has never needed to mess with because Firestone know what they’re doing – they do their research and they’re reliable.”

The magnitude of Firestone’s 2020 task

The aeroscreen has pushed the IndyCar's center of gravity both forward and up, increasing demands on Firestone's front tires.

The aeroscreen has pushed the IndyCar's center of gravity both forward and up, increasing demands on Firestone's front tires.

Photo by: Arrow McLaren SP

This last point has been demonstrated, and in spades, by Firestone’s endeavors since the aeroscreen was confirmed as compulsory from the start of 2020.

“IndyCar told us about the aeroscreen right around May last year, not long before it was announced to the general public,” says Cara Adams, who last fall was promoted from chief engineer for Bridgestone Americas Motorsports to the company’s director of race tire engineering and production, thereby overseeing all Firestone and Bridgestone racing operations. “It’s fair to say that we’ve been working tirelessly [no pun intended] since then.

“Early on, what we needed were partners to work on simulation to tell us where they thought the cars would end up in terms of tire loads and speeds, and we had great partners in Honda and Chevrolet. We got an estimation of where they thought the new center of gravity might be – both the revised height and how much further forward – so we approached the early tests armed with simulation data suggesting the ballpark that the tires might need to be in.

“That first test with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing [Graham Rahal] and Team Penske [Josef Newgarden] was at Texas Motor Speedway, and we were able to test with some ballast on the cars to represent the aeroscreen, and on one of the cars we also had the ballast mounted higher up to represent the new CoG. Obviously, not only does moving the weight forward add more load to the front tires, but when the CoG is higher, you’re creating more roll in the car and that adds more force to the outside tires and more understeer.

“A lot of the data that was generated that day was very helpful to us, but getting the actual aeroscreen in place was obviously best of all, because then you see that the extra drag [caused by the screen] has slowed the car a little and we were able to get more precise data for the center of mass of the car. At Texas without the screen, the cars hadn’t had that drag and it had also been very hot – it got up to 140degF track temperature! – and so not representative of the race which is held in the evening. Thankfully we had the screen in place for the tests at Indianapolis, Richmond and the road courses [Barber and Sebring].

“But each of the tracks is going to be a little bit different in the effect caused by the center of mass change, even if the overall theme is that there will be more work going into the front tires. In our tests we were looking at balancing the front and rear tires for the best overall performance of the car.”

It’s worth emphasizing at this point how important well-correlated sims are on these occasions, particularly on temporary tracks. It’s not as if IndyCar can request the cities of Long Beach, Belle Isle or Toronto to shut down their streets for a day of testing. So Firestone is having to rely on their own circuit data accrued over previous seasons, then transpose calculations from the engine manufacturers’ sim work, and from the teams themselves, about the revised forces being put through the car’s four contact patches.

This will produce new figures for weight transfer longitudinally (braking and acceleration) and laterally (whenever the road turns), and Firestone must then come up with a new tire – or at the very least, revised tire pressure recommendations – so the drivers have rubber that behaves in a progressive manner as it reaches and exceeds ultimate adhesion but that also doesn’t suffer excess graining and wear.

“The engine manufacturers have helped us narrow down what we can expect to see at most of the tracks,” says Adams, “and getting good data from Indianapolis, Richmond, Barber and Sebring has helped us predict where the other tracks are going to be on the scale of what is required. And the Barber test even allowed us to got some meaningful data for our rain tires, too.

“Around Indianapolis there was very little change caused by the aeroscreen. It added a little bit of understeer, although we – as in Firestone, IndyCar and the engine manufacturers – haven’t yet seen these cars run in traffic there. Some of the other tracks will require new constructions to handle the loads, but that’s something we need more data on: we took some different constructions to Barber but that ended up being somewhat rain-shortened, so we didn’t learn all we wanted for addressing the increased understeer.

“That said, I think as teams get more comfortable with this car, they’ll be able to balance some of that out anyway, but for now what we can say is that there are some tracks where we’ll increase our tire pressure recommendations by a psi or so, but others where we’ll bring a new construction. It depends on the characteristics of each track.”

Last summer, when it became clear just how much of a difference the aeroscreen was going to make to an IndyCar’s handling characteristics, one renowned engineer suggested that IndyCar should look into forward-swept A-arms to maintain their cars’ current balance. It would have been expensive for all the teams. Instead, Firestone took it on the chin and has carried the burden of the aeroscreen’s consequences, even to the extent of widening the front tires for some tracks. It’s worth remembering at this point that for non-ovals, Firestone is having to revise not one but two compounds – the more durable primaries and the red-sidewalled alternates.

“Yes, I think we had to be prepared for the changes,” says Adams with great equanimity, “and yes, there are some tracks that are going to be more aggressive on our tires. Recognizing that, we had conversations with IndyCar about what could be done to the cars – and actually some of the ideas were even more ‘out there’ than forward-swept A-arms!

“In the end, we decided to see what we could do and certainly the tires we have assigned for the races will address the team’s needs. We may have more work to do as we start to observe how the cars behave in traffic – that’s something we haven’t seen yet because of how few cars have run together so far.

“For most tracks, the width of the tires will be staying the same, but if we have a size change it will be a very minor one that the engineers will notice but most of the people looking at the car won’t. The first track on the schedule where that might have to happen would be Texas [early June].”

Supporting safety measures and improving safety

Cara Adams has risen the Firestone/Bridgestone ranks to become director of race tire engineering and production.

Cara Adams has risen the Firestone/Bridgestone ranks to become director of race tire engineering and production.

Photo by: Firestone

In the weeks and months to come, there will be deserved praise lavished on the companies and individuals mentioned at the top of this story, the ones directly involved in the instigation, construction and development of IndyCar’s aeroscreen, and it will be amplified (again deservedly) every time it helps prevent serious injury to a driver. But it’s clear that Firestone has played a huge role in accommodating the knock-on effects of the device while ensuring its own product, too, remains as safe as possible. And while the bulk of the work has been undertaken already, there is still much more to come… and soon it will need to be performed within the construct of a densely packed seven-month schedule.

Adams explains: “Safety, consistency and reliability are things that the Firestone team is beyond passionate about. Our number one priority is ensuring our drivers, who are an extension of our family and team, are safe.

“We want to make durable, consistent tires, we want input from our drivers and we continually utilize their information to maintain the constant evolution of our product. They trust us, I believe, because we trust them and value their feedback, and so we’ll be continually making improvements this year to maintain our standards.”

It’s hard to think of a company within the NTT IndyCar Series that has higher standards. Long may Firestone reign, and without any threat – real or imagined – to its monopoly.

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Series IndyCar
Author David Malsher-Lopez