INDYCAR champ Newgarden relishes challenge that new car presents drivers

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Josef Newgarden welcomed the opportunity last week to explain some of the nuances in the Verizon IndyCar Series’ new car unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The reigning series champion for Team Penske likes the new design, which features a universal aero kit that reduces downforce from the previous competitive kits supplied by Chevrolet and Honda. The new car demands more from the driver in managing high speeds into the corners.

After finishing his speech, Newgarden reiterated what other drivers have already said, that they welcome the challenge of adapting to the new car.

“Anything that showcases my value more for getting paid to drive the race car, I like,” Newgarden said. “Whenever you’re a paid race car driver, you want something that separates you from the other guys. We’ll have that in abundance with this new car.

“We still need another 100 horsepower for the car to get fully there to be super difficult. It’s not that it’s not difficult, but I think the top guys would like another 100 to 150 horsepower, and then that would really be a challenge. We’re going to ask for even more. This year, we’re going to try to get on top of the new aerodynamic and mechanical package, and I think that will be a challenge enough. Then as we get into the new engine versions coming up in the near future, that will be another whole new thing to learn after that. I’m excited about it. I like change. I like difficulty.”

Newgarden said he expects top speeds to be in the same 240-245 mph range on the straights at Indianapolis Motor Speedway for May’s 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500 presented by PennGrade Motor Oil. He said the biggest change will be in how the cars handle on road and street courses.

“Having already tested it, it’s more difficult on a road/street course configuration compared to what we had, which is a good thing,” Newgarden said. “But also, the attitude is better. You talk about the weight distribution moving forward, just some of the handling characteristics mechanically, the car is almost easier to drive in a way. It’s more difficult with the less downforce, you’re moving, but the car is predictable at the same time. It’s enjoyable to slide it (through corners) now.”

Newgarden elaborated on a media conference call about what drivers will face on road and street courses this year.

“I think we're all going to have to work really hard to figure out what this car wants,” he said. “Essentially, the car is more lively. It slides around a lot more. You have to be comfortable with it moving underneath you, particularly on corner entry. Drivers are going to struggle to find their footing on their braking and getting into the corner. The rear is really wanting to come around on you.

“And then after that, it's really going to be about managing tires over stints. I think that will be difficult, which is a good thing. It's really going to make it hard on the driver to last through the entire race stints. And then the most important thing is just the following rate. With this new car and the way the aerodynamics work, it's all about powering the underwing. We want to make the downforce for the car mainly from the underwing, not disrupt the air to the car behind you.

“So I think the following is going to be a lot better. You're going to be able to be just right up on someone like a Formula Ford or a go-kart even.”

How the car will perform on ovals depends on the length of the track, he said.

“On a short oval, you’re going to have big differences,” Newgarden said. “You’ll really notice that we’re going to have to brake now on short ovals. We didn’t have to do that before. On superspeedways, I think there will be less difference. The great race that we’ve had at the Indianapolis 500 the last six years, we’re still going to have that. It’s not going to change that much. The same thing with places like Pocono and Texas.”

The new design still utilizes the same Dallara IR-12 chassis, but the sidepods are moved up and changes have been made to the radiator mounts, underwing, suspension as well as the electronics, among other things, he said.

Newgarden’s team owner, Roger Penske, said at the auto show that it will be interesting to see which series drivers adapt the most quickly to the new car. Newgarden acknowledged that unknown.

“You just never know. It’s hard to predict,” he said. “I think the good guys will still be good, you’ll see that. You’ll see the guys who were successful last year, they will still be successful.

“It will really just be a matter of what teams get on top of the setups as quick as they can. That will be important because the setups will be so different. And then how the drivers actually react, that’s hard to tell. I don’t know. I think some guys will really fit with it and some won’t.”

Newgarden edged teammate and 2016 series champion Simon Pagenaud for the 2017 crown after winning a season-high four races and finishing second in four other starts.

He looks forward to renewing his rivalry with Pagenaud and Team Penske’s third driver, 2014 champion Will Power, among others.

“Both Simon and me, we have a great love for the battle that you have on the racetrack and hopefully we have that for years to come,” Newgarden said. “We’re all going to be pushing. Will, Simon and myself, we’ll all be pushing to win the championship for the team.”

Pagenaud has said the only caveat to not being a champion again is fewer publicity engagements in the offseason. Newgarden agreed that he’s been making the rounds, not that he’s minded the extra appearances.

“I’ve got to tell you, being with Team Penske whether you win the championship or not, they move you around a lot,” Newgarden said. “You’re busy, you’re very busy. You might as well win the championship because you’re going to be busy regardless.”

Quite true. Power is scheduled to appear at the Detroit show on Friday with retired Penske great and four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears. Newgarden is headed to St. Louis on the same day, where he will help pick the winner of a charity raffle for a new car from Bommarito Automotive Group, which sponsored the successful INDYCAR race return to Gateway Motorsports Park near St. Louis last year. On Saturday, Newgarden will be available at the St. Louis auto show for autographs and photos from noon-2 p.m. ET.

The 2018 Verizon IndyCar Series season opens in six weeks with the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg from March 9-11.

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