Turning left: The art of mastering IndyCar ovals

Racing on ovals in IndyCar is one of the toughest tasks a driver can face, and Mobil 1 The Grid discussed the unique challenges of ovals with several of the series biggest stars.

To those on the outside, it’s just going left for several hundred miles. But it isn’t that simple. Racing on IndyCars famous ovals is perhaps the toughest challenge any open wheel driver can face. The philosophy is very different to that of racing on a street or road course, with the car set up entirely differently and the draft used in a unique way.

Traffic management is also key, getting around cars in the right places and making sure it doesn’t leave you vulnerable to your rival behind. Physically perhaps, it isn’t as challenging as an average road course event. But mentally, it challenges you on a huge level with everything happening so fast and a millisecond making such a big difference and perhaps more so than in Formula 1.

Source: Verizon IndyCar Media

Setup is key on an oval. As 2012 IndyCar champion and 2014 Indy 500 winner Ryan Hunter-Reay says, everything is asymmetrical as you are just turning left all the time. The camber is set to the left leaving the wheels in a bizarre position, and leaving the pits can actually be more of a challenge than it may appear! How to setup the car, and how to race it has to be learnt at the highest level.

“The steering weight is very heavy this way [left] and very light to the right. It’s a very strange feeling. Once you’re in the corner, the steering becomes lighter to the left. And you come out of the corner, it becomes heavier to the right.

Even when you leave the pitbox, it’s very hard to go right out of the pitlane because you’re tuning the car a way it doesn’t want to go, it wants to go left so it takes some getting used too.”

Ryan Hunter-Reay

Away from IndyCar and its feeder series IndyLights, there is not open wheel oval racing where drivers can prepare for IndyCar. This presents a challenge for even the best drivers, including Fernando Alonso whose performance at this year’s Indy 500 was one of the racing performances of this decade. But if it was easy, they would all try their hand at it, wouldn’t they? IndyCar has a unique and challenging skill set that rivals that perhaps trumps that of Grand Prix racing.

“The skillset is completely different. It’s such a unique thing and it’s so hard to learn because because you end up really learning it at the highest level. There’s not a lot of open wheel, oval racing below IndyLights so it’s tough to learn at that level, with those speeds with guys who have been doing it for a decade and a half.”

James Hinchcliffe

Source: Verizon IndyCar Media

It perhaps creates a more complete type of driver. Jumping from racetrack to racetrack, each presenting a unique challenge of its own, is one thing. Jumping from a track like Sonoma, to a street course like Long Beach then to an oval such as Indianapolis is another. IndyCar drivers must learn to quickly change from a road/street course mindset to an oval one and then back again in the span of a week and it is something that should be applauded.

But what should be applauded most of all is the skills required to race on an oval. It is something that looks so simple but watching these drivers dice it out, wheel to wheel at speeds close to 230mph is one of the most exhilarating things a motorsport fan can witness and one that can be truly savoured.