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Indianapolis 500 set to provide thrills, but it will be covering up a big IndyCar problem

The final laps of the IndyCar Grand Prix went by rather quickly as I watched from my couch on Saturday evening.

That tends to happen when you are fast-forwarding.

The kickoff to May at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was just the latest in a series of monotonous IndyCar Series races in 2017. Proponents of the series like to say that the racing is the most exciting on the planet.

Not so this year.

I don’t watch NASCAR anymore, purely because that series is as dull as dull can be. But I find it hard to believe that recent stock car races have been any more boring than the IndyCar parades at Indy and Phoenix, among others.

Those who tuned in for Saturday’s race in its entirety saw Will Power “edge” Scott Dixon by 5.2 seconds for the victory. Power led 61 of the 85 laps while teammate Helio Castroneves led the other 24. In all, there were four lead changes, all of which came during the cycling of pit stops.

The freeze on aero development for 2017 has no doubt hurt the on-track product. It was mandated that Honda and Chevrolet would not be able to improve their body kits for this season, with spec aero for all cars coming for 2018 and beyond.

According to Jay Frye, IndyCar’s president of competition and operations, the 2018 car will greatly enhance the racing by moving a significant amount of downforce below the car instead of above. The current aero shifts the majority of the downforce over the car, leading to massive amounts of turbulence being placed on trailing cars and negatively affecting the ability to pass.

“We’ve been working on the aerodynamics to suit the look, rather than the other way around, “said Tino Belli, IndyCar director of aerodynamic development, in the release accompanying images of the new car back in March. “We’re working on creating more of the downforce from the underwing.”

In layman’s terms, this means that next year’s new look will be racier and sexier looking…hopefully.

IndyCar better hope so. The modest television ratings gains over the last few years are in danger of disappearing if the on-track product doesn’t improve significantly. Three of the first four races this season saw ratings below where they were at last year. The ability for IndyCar to thump its chest at increased viewership as NASCAR ratings fall is in danger.

In addition, it’s tough to buy in to 2018 as being this lifesaver to the series’ excitement level.

The focus on the development of the new aero has prioritized the look of the car first, with function second. Sure, the renderings of the new car look amazing, a throwback to true open-wheel cars of the 1980s and 90s, but if the new aero does not deliver an improved ability to pass and run side-by-side, what’s the point?

In 2015, IndyCar officials trumpeted the addition of “aero wars” to the series, with Honda and Chevrolet each developing unique body kits that would, allegedly, increase the level of excitement and provide an additional aspect of competition between the two manufacturers.

Instead, Honda’s kit was woefully behind Chevy initially on many tracks and has played catch-up ever since.

Oh, and the racing didn’t improve much, all while adding a massive amount of expense to the manufacturers and teams.

Thankfully for IndyCar, the next two weeks should provide plenty of excitement leading up to the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500. Fernando Alonso’s arrival Monday for the first day of practice will bring a worldwide audience, one that will carry through Memorial Day weekend. As has been the case the last several years, the 500 will likely be the most-competitive race and entertaining in the world in 2017.

But after the drinking of the milk and the presentation of the Borg-Warner trophy on May 28, what does the remainder of the 2017 IndyCar Series season hold in store?

If it’s anything like the first five races, keep your finger on that fast-forward button.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Justin Kenny at jkenny@news-sentinel.com.

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