Answer? Yes. No. Maybe? I don’t know. Can you repeat the question?
Last year, the new Gen-6 racecar suffered from a crippling reliance on aero grip. In other words, they needed air pushing down on the car, and the various aero aids (splitter, spoiler etc) to grip. And when it didn’t have that – i.e. all the time the car is near other cars in traffic – it drove like a brick coated in soap. The leader could bask in clean air and run away whilst everyone behind struggled in each other’s dirty air. Long story short, the cars couldn’t race close together.
Wait, you thought NASCAR was all about close racing? Yeah, I thought so too. The Gen-6 cruelly forgot that, and we had to endure awful racing at most tracks outside of plate and short tracks. These are the sort of issues which blight heavily aero-dependant series like F1 and DTM, not rough and ready stock car racing. A stock car is a bruising slab of horsepower and metal, hard to control, slippery and relying mostly on pure mechanical grip and engineering. Not a withering damsel terrified of getting caught in ‘dirty air’.
So after a huge group test at Charlotte last December, NASCAR made some tweaks. The rear spoiler was made almost comically large and the stupid splitter was blunted, with ride height rules also changed. The theory behind the Great Wall of China rear spoilers was that the lead car would punch a bigger hole in the air, meaning that draft would make up for the lack of aero grip for a trailing car. With me so far? Good.
So far this season, the racing has been a mixed bag – and it’s hard to tell whether any problems have been because of the Gen-6, or it’s tweaks. At Daytona, we were treated to epic racing, a stark contrast to last year’s single file bore-fest. Drivers and cars had the confidence to dart in and out of the draft, passing other cars at will, and as a result we had an excellent race. Since then though, we’ve had two average races at Phoenix and Las Vegas. And with Vegas being a 1.5 intermediate track, the kind of track NASCAR wanted to improve the racing on, that would imply that the Gen-6 tweaks are failing.
But perhaps it isn’t entirely the Gen-6’s fault?
Some fans pointed out that there was plenty of good racing in the mid-pack in Vegas – none of which the TV audience saw behind wave after wave of commercials and focus on the top five cars. Also, with points racing effectively rendered redundant, the mentality for most of the field has changed; far from encouraging winning, it actually seems to have made drivers more conservative. Why not settle for 10th or 15th place when fighting tooth and nail to get a few more positions won’t make a jot of difference to your season? I still cannot believe such a ridiculous system is in place in one of the world’s premier motorsports.
And there’s another factor that we haven’t yet considered.
Maybe NASCAR’s next step should be to tweak the tires, not the cars?
Think about it. Not long ago in NASCAR, the field used a tire compound which would gradually deteriorate over a long green flag run, meaning cars would become more difficult to handle and lap times would drop. Managing your tires was a skill, and this created movement throughout the pack as guys with better handling cars would use their tires better and move up the order, whereas others burning up their tires quicker would drop back. Let’s not forget the tire strategies that could work out. Do you take two tires or none at all to get track position, or four and use that extra grip to your advantage? At tracks like Darlington, notorious for destroying tires, this was a legitimate strategy which saw many races decided in thrilling finishes with cars on worn-out rubber fighting to hold off those on fresh Good Year’s.
A few years ago, Goodyear switched to a harder compound which doesn’t fall off during a run – lap times barely differ by more than half a second after 60+ laps on a hot, sticky track. This now means that track position and clean air are king, and strategy is largely fuel-based only. As we saw in Vegas, this can create exciting finales, but 2 great laps isn’t worth 200+ uneventful ones before it. Notice how generally there is little ebb and flow in NASCAR races – drivers usually stay where they are for most of the race. On the old compound they would fall back, move up again, and circulate up and down the order, like a big 170mph game of musical chairs. Who would be in with a shot to win when the music stopped? And with fading rubber came fading handling, meaning drivers would hit trouble and more likely spin and/or wreck. No need for phantom ‘debris’ cautions to break up a race, right? And it’s worth remembering that the old compound would often run out of grip before the fuel tank would run dry, meaning fuel strategy was a) less of a thing and b) more of a gamble when it happened.
Multiple compounds have gotten a bad rap ever since Pirelli’s disasters with them last year in F1, but they have also been proven to work in Indycar and are a potential option. The simpler alternative would be to return to a softer compound like we had previously in NASCAR in the early-to-mid-2000s, which would start off rocket fast, but fade away across a run to the tune of 2-5 seconds per lap depending on the track. This would have a two-hander effect: better pack racing on restarts as drivers with fresh tires have confidence in their machines, and better racing throughout a race as different tire strategies and handling patterns play out.
With the field more closely matched than ever, we need something to introduce a note of unpredictability to proceedings, and ensure that fuel mileage isn’t the only thing that separates drivers at the checkered flag. Maybe the Gen-6 still isn’t the finished article – but some new shoes might go a long way to changing that.