It’s time for IndyCar to add a line to its rulebook that will make life easier for its drivers and teams: Cool shirt systems or ballast, take your pick.
Devised independently by its teams in response to the spike in cockpit temperatures since the aeroscreen driver safety devices became mandatory in 2020, the NTT IndyCar Series has welcomed the use of the cool shirt systems as an elective method to bring the core temperatures of its drivers down on hot or humid days.
But the decision to cool comes with a weight penalty of approximately eight pounds when the system, which is comprised of a cool shirt, water, hoses, ducting, and the cooling pump, are combined and installed at the front of the Dallara DW12 tubs.
And that’s where undue interference from some team leaders and race engineers has placed a higher priority on weight savings – running eight pounds lighter than the competition – than the cooling of its drivers. The sacrifice is often, but not always, made to gain upwards of 0.1 seconds per lap by keeping the eight pounds off the car. And that’s also where we’ve reached a point where IndyCar needs to intervene.
The recent event in Nashville was the latest example where select teams chose to forego driver cooling to gain a competitive edge; climbing from their cars on Friday, the difference between those who had the cool shirt systems installed and those who went without was alarming as the uncooled looked like they spent 75 minutes roasting in an oven.
Visuals of those who were overheating and needing to make a beeline for ice baths to bring their body temperatures to a safer place was yet another reminder that nobody, other than the drivers, should have the ability to make a decision in the name of performance that places their pilots’ health at risk.
As we’ve learned, some drivers don’t need the added cooling because their bodies are more capable of heat rejection than others, and in the case of Team Penske’s Scott McLaughlin, past failures of the cool shirt system – in his former career in the Australian Supercars series – has led to his willful decision to run without it in IndyCar. A few drivers have also taken it upon themselves to skip cool shirts to make use of the eight-pound advantage, and while admirable, it’s not the type of gamble that should be allowed to continue.
Scott McLaughlin has opted against using the cool shirts after having mixed experiences with them during his Supercars career. Joe Skibinski/Penske Entertainment
IndyCar can balance the scales in favor of its drivers by adding a basic rule that says if the ambient conditions are above a threshold for temperature or humidity, team must install their driver cooling system or eight pounds of ballast to compensate for running without the system in the car. One way or the other, every car will have the extra eight pounds installed by take the teams out of the decision-making equation and remove the possibility of exploiting a weight break. It’s that simple.
For a series that goes to extraordinary lengths to protect its drivers, this rule adjustment falls in line with all of the other regulations created to protect the series’ most precious commodity.
IndyCar devised the same exact rule for use of the overhead air scoop which mounts to the aeroscreen; using a threshold it sets for high temperatures/humidity, an email will go out to all teams from the series mandating the installation of the scoop. If the series has established a precedent and temperature-based trigger for the topside scoop to be installed, a cooling system-or-ballast precedent would seem to be an easy one to enact.
The system adopted by most IndyCar teams is made by Rini and promises to deliver cooling to the driver that’s approximately 10 degrees below ambient. Speak with those who make regular use of the system and they say it’s quite powerful and makes a significant difference in their ability to drive on the limit without heat-related fatigue setting in.
In explaining why they haven’t acquired the driver cooling units, one or two teams have points to costs. It comes with a price tag of $7800 per system, which isn’t exactly inexpensive, but for the sake of comparison, the specialized wheel guns made by Paoli also cost $6900 apiece, and between four and six of them can be found in each pit box.
If teams are able to spend $27,600-$41,400 to keep the wheels on the car, spending the value of a little more than an extra Paoli to keep the driver below the boiling point inside the car seems like an expenditure that can be justified. And if, for whatever reason, a team wants to hold firm and save their money, get that eight pounds ready to bolt onto the car.
The problem of high cockpit and driver temperatures isn’t going away anytime soon. The first opportunity to incorporate a purpose-built cooling solution will come when the successor to the Dallara DW12 is commissioned, and at the moment, there’s no specific date in place for its arrival.
Until we reach a point in the future where cooling systems can be designed into the next-generation cars, the series can level the playing field with a new line in the rulebook that brings an end to the eight-pound reward. This one’s a no-brainer.