IndyCar – A New Hope

Wednesday evening saw the announcement of the car concept for the next era of the IZOD IndyCar Series starting in 2012, as decided after much deliberation by the ‘ICONIC’ committee. This was a chassis announcement, engines were briefly discussed but they were not the focus of this decision.

The Committee

The qualifications of the committee seem to me to be unquestionable.

  • Gil de Ferran  – Indy 500 winner, IndyCar and (former ALMS) team owner, former sporting director of Honda F1;
  • Tony Cotman – among many other things the man responsible for the Panoz DP01 project at Champ Car, also the chief steward of Indy Lights I believe;
  • Brian Barnhart – President of Competition at IndyCar;
  • Tony Purnell – founder of Pi Research, formerly ran Jaguar F1 and Ford’s Premier Performance Division;
  • Neil Ressler – former Chief Technical Officer at Ford Motor Company;
  • Eddie Gossage – President of Texas Motor Speedway;
  • Rick Long – Speedway Engine Development;
  • and of course the new superstar CEO of IndyCar, Randy Bernard.

It was chaired by retired General Bill Looney, apparently he was responsible for a major engineering project in the US Air Force.

I can’t think of a better driver to consult than Gil de Ferran, he’s won races in the current cars and the CART Lolas, and has management experience in three major championships. Cotman was the last man to bring in a new car to a budget in North American Open Wheel racing and he and his group learned a lot, it is good to see that knowledge being called upon. Purnell and Ressler have a close working relationship from their time with Ford and Jaguar. Gossage is perhaps the most creative track owner/promoter in the series at the moment.

The Choice

The original idea of the committee was to select from a choice of submissions from various suppliers. Five entities (some aren’t quite companies) submitted proposals:  Dallara, Lola, Swift, BAT and Delta Wing.

Each of them (publically) put forward a variety of designs – we don’t know if there were more out of the public eye.

Delta Wing suggested a radical new concept – anyone can build a car to a set basic set of rules just like F1 but with a radically different look aimed at maximising efficiency, the catch being that each chassis design must be made available at a set cost to anyone that wants one.

The other proposals featured varying degrees of novel ideas, notably Swift who pumped out design after design and included intriguing ideas such as the ‘SwiftLights’  on the sides of cars showing fuel loads, gear selection, accelerator and brake pedal position to the fans. Hat tip also to Lola who featured what seemed to me to be a very mean and aggressive update to their CART-era car, a car I consider to be one of the finest open-wheel cars ever constructed, with a choice of aero options which would be matched in performance and suggested also supplying a basic version with fewer wings for the support series Indy Lights.

Frankly I don’t know what Dallara and BAT’s original proposals were. Dallara presented three designs one of which was a modern take on the current car, but gave little else away, and to be perfectly frank I didn’t follow BAT’s at all.

The Decision

It seems during the process the focus changed from a choice of chassis to a choice of concepts. That’s fine – this is the future of an entire class of racing, they have the right. This is potentially why Swift kept producing more designs which were different to each other – I wonder if they considered manufacturing several of their designs to race against each other, I have to assume they did. It seemed odd that Dallara and Lola remained (publically) quiet in this period. I think we now have to assume there were plenty of discussions going on behind closed doors between the committee and the various designers, as it seems obvious now there must have been.

So what was chosen?

A standard Dallara body with open aerodynamic competition.

Let’s go through that again, because if you’re reading that for the first time I’m sure you just did a double-take as we all did when watching the announcement on their website.

- The basic chassis, gearbox, suspension and so forth will come from Dallara and its appointed suppliers. It will cost $349,000 alone and $385,000 complete with ancillaries, and won’t carry the Dallara name as it’ll be referred to as an ‘IndyCar’. The twist: the car will NOT come with sidepods, an engine cover, or front and rear wings.

- These parts have been opened up to the market. Sold as complete ‘aero kits’ for $70,000 per kit, the aerodynamics can be designed and produced by anybody who wishes to make them. It is for the makers to sell them to the teams once they have cleared new safety tests to be imposed by IndyCar. Another twist: As with the Delta Wing concept, if it is on the market it must be available to anybody who wants to buy one – but a team may only buy two per year (I assume per car, not confirmed yet). Each kit will contain all the different wings and other parts you need for ovals, road courses and street courses. When a kit has been fixed to a car the designation will change from ‘IndyCar’ to ‘[name] IndyCar’ – so if Penske produce their own kit as may be likely, the car will be a Penske IndyCar.

Here is a mock-up rendering of what the new cars may look like, with three aero pack options at the top and the base car supplied by Dallara underneath. Note this was produced at short notice and is only a proof-of-concept, I understand it is not the definitive model. In my opinion the base model is accurate and the aero options are conservative.

IndyCar's new idea

2012 IndyCar chassis with three aero pack concepts. Credit: Ron McQueeny, IZOD IndyCar Series

The Dallara Issue

I read a lot of criticism of Dallara in the days leading up to this announcement. People seem to think that sticking with the same supplier isn’t progress enough. Perhaps this is right. A clean break would’ve been an interesting start to a new era of looking forward rather than the endless navel-gazing we’ve had, I agree and it would’ve been fantastic to see it but that doesn’t mean Dallara aren’t capable of doing something different.

Let’s set the record straight. Dallara was not my favoured choice but I don’t think they should be attacked just because they the existing supplier. It was not Dallara’s fault the current car has been racing for 8 years – that was a decision taken by the IRL to save the teams money during the ‘war’ with CART / Champ Car. Dallara had in fact prepared plans for a successor five years ago, those plans were put on ice.

Some suggest the car isn’t safe. I accept that doesn’t appear to be as safe as the Lolas and Reynards in CART at the time it was introduced, I base this on the number of back injuries sustained in the IRL over time – there’s something strange there because there are certain types of accidents and certain injuries that appear to be common to this Dallara which didn’t happen with Lolas and Reynards on ovals. But I haven’t done a study, I can’t prove it. Do we know if the other IRL chassis suppliers suffered the same problem? I honestly don’t know, and if they did then that is the fault of the specification the cars were designed to meet, and as I’ve mentioned there was another car on the drawing board some years ago which I firmly believe will have helped minimise the issues. And it isn’t like the current car is completely unsafe – ask Mike Conway.

Dallara also produce some excellent cars elsewhere, see their GP2, FRenault 3.5 World Series and Formula 3 cars – and they also do a lot of work on Audi’s Le Mans cars, surely that alone must be praise enough. Add to the mix that they’re doing this all at once – think back to the IndyCar unification, the first two series I named had both introduced brand new cars over that winter meaning 26 race cars plus spares for each series – they still made extra IndyCars to satisfy the extra demand. They produced a Formula 1 car to a budget despite a ridiculously short lead time and many, many delays caused by lack of payment to them, it was contract work and the customer didn’t pay up.

These people know what they are doing. That doesn’t mean Lola and Swift would be any worse, I fully trust both of them to produce a complete field of IndyCars or any other open wheelers. I think it is a tremendous shame that we can’t have open competition between the three companies, unfortunately the costs would escalate.

I don’t get why IndyCar and Dallara have decided to call it a ‘Safety Cell’ though. The safety cell is broadly-speaking the area between the front axle line (or just after) to just beyond the drivers’ headrest. It is the survival cell protecting the driver, it isn’t the entire rolling chassis as this group appears to want it to refer. I’m not the only one to make this point, Marshall Pruett has too (he makes many good points).

Aero Kits

A really interesting concept. It opens it up to everyone from small design businesses to large engineering firms and that call was made by the panel.

We’re hoping lots of technology concerns stamp their names in the Indy 500 history book by dressing this chassis in different and sexy ways. The hologram shows how different the solutions might be, yet all within the rules. It’s a revolutionary strategy, opening the door for many to rise to the challenge of Indy, not just the traditional chassis manufacturers.

Our goal is to reach out and challenge the automotive and aerospace industries. So come on, Ford, come on GM, Lotus, Ferrari, come on Lockheed, come on Boeing, come on you engineers working in small technology businesses. We want you to rise to the challenge. There’s a framework here to showcase your technical prowess without a major raid on the piggy bank. We want you guys involved, it’s time to pick up the gauntlet. Roll on 2012, bring it on.

Tony Purnell, ICONIC Advisory Committee

They won’t get Lockheed or Boeing. Those names were dropped to emphasise a point: this is open to anybody. Perhaps those companies might get involved as consultants or offer use of their facilities, but I don’t see them entering with their own name. They are actively chasing engine makers and I hope they get them, perhaps one or two of them would develop their own wing packages along with their engines?

I like the idea. I like that we have the cost-saving of a common chassis because that is very important in the current climate and will remain so for a while longer and I like that there will be open competition in a manner not seen before. It ought to be fascinating to see the cars develop – In 2012 fully expect half the field or more to run the default wing package provided by Dallara (and they will offer one), perhaps for the first couple of races they may all be spec. As we get into 2012 and the first iterations come on stream the cars should get faster and more distinctive. As we get into 2013 and 2014 the different suppliers will have found different solutions and borrowed each other’s and we should see cars with very different characteristics.

All this said, I am finding it hard to make sense of it as a business proposition. It’ll cost a heck of a lot more than 70k to develop them, and there is no guarantee they’ll sell more than a few particularly when it transpires option B is faster than option A. Perhaps the only people making them will be making a loss and would do so to increase brand awareness? The likes of Penske, Ganassi, Lotus, maybe Ferrari and McLaren, I can see those sorts of companies entering the arena.

“Lotus Racing congratulates the IZOD IndyCar Series on this exciting news and supports the ICONIC Advisory Committee’s recommendation on the revolutionary concept of a standard safety cell with various manufacturers producing aero kits. We look forward to seeing more details on this future car strategy, and hopefully, allow our involvement in the IZOD IndyCar Series.”

Tony Fernandes, Team Principal, Lotus Racing Formula 1 team

Do not expect other chassis-makers to participate though, Dallara is one of their major rivals and there’s no way they’ll work together. That means no Swift, no Lola, no Panoz. We shouldn’t be surprised at this.

I think it’ll take a lot of goodwill and the desire to continue to improve to beat whichever group is fastest, rather than doing what happened under full chassis and engine competition – overspend and then pull out.

Indiana

Dallara will be relocating chassis production to Indianapolis, just a mile or so from IMS. On the face of it as many have commented elsewhere, it seems like this was a major factor in securing the contract. We’ll wait and see if they play it down. It’ll secure 80 jobs in Indiana and means the company is far more accessible to the people it is supplying, which is great because if Dallara are continuing in IndyCar (and GrandAm) it probably ought to have a physical US presence. I’m left wondering what this means for the staff in Italy, though. The lead times are also a problem and I expect the initial development cars to come out of Italy probably a year from now, perhaps even the first batches of completed cars will come from Italy while the factory is built and kitted out.

There will also be incentives from the State of Indiana, the first 28 chassis to be sold to teams based in that area will be sold at a reduced price as Dallara will be given a grant by the State.

There are two ways of looking at this. It is either the series endorsing regional protectionism (I suppose a little like the ACO insisting on backing small French outfits at Le Mans seemingly regardless of qualifications), or it is an economic stimulus to kick-start a cottage industry, one which has reduced considerably since the 80s when it was a real racing town. I appreciate that’s what they are trying to do but I don’t like the way it effectively excludes teams not based around Indy, that’s not the way to encourage more people from across North America to enter the series.

Miscellany

It is worth noting the brief mention of engines.

The future engine strategy will allow manufacturers to produce engine with a maximum of six cylinders as well as a maximum displacement of 2.4 liters. The engines will range from 550 to 700-horsepower to suit the diverse set of tracks the IZOD IndyCar Series runs on and will be turbocharged to allow the flexibility in power.

Rick Long, ICONIC Advisory Committee

Essentially they are saying the engines will by roughly where they are for ovals and more powerful on road courses, which is exactly what they need. The cars are fast enough on ovals – people are calling for ‘New Track Records’ but we can’t have that and people need to accept it, we can’t have that or we’ll end up with CART at Texas all over again. They need to be faster on road courses, a lighter chassis with more power will acheive that. The mention of ‘manufacturers’ (plural) is interesting. I really hope we see engine competition again, as I said at the top this wasn’t an engine announcement and they were waiting to announce the chassis side first. Now they plan to visit with engine makers in America and Europe (I presume Asia too?).

Summary

It is strange because it is both radical and incremental. Conservative and liberal. Spec and not spec. A mixture of old and new. I like it because it is the beginnings of open competition without the massive costs of full chassis competition, which is something none of the teams can afford right now. There is the potential to open it up under the same framework when the tubs are next due to be replaced, and that’ll be far shorter than the length of time the current car has served. Dallara has agreed to go to 2015 and in others series where they have a say, they like to refresh the car in three-year cycles plus annual upgrades. This is the model they employ in GP2, WSR and F3. Perhaps in 2015 or shortly after there will be the chance to look at the economy again and open up another part of the car – or all of it.

We’re missing detail. A lot of detail. I think most of us were expecting a complete announcement with a show car, what we were given was a concept launch. That’s fine in itself but perhaps our expectations could’ve been steered in that direction?

I get the impression the IRL hasn’t traditionally been a body that was comfortable with a lot of change, they are conservative and take an age to decide anything if they ever decide anything at all. To me this seems like a halfway house between open competition and a spec series, leaning considerably towards the spec. There are all kinds of problems to overcome, not least the establishment of an entirely new technical division at IndyCar to police the new aero rules and the lack of anybody actually signed up to this concept. As of right now we’ve had Swift and Delta Wing rule it out, Lola almost certainly following suit (though as I said earlier, all of these should be no surprise) and so far only one group (Lotus) has mentioned they are considering it. This is a problem – but this is also racing, and racing people love solving problems.

Racing people also love being negative and talking problems into happening even if they wouldn’t have happened if they’d kept quiet. Indy racing has been the most negative form of racing for nigh on 20 years. This concept relies on people working to resolve all of these problems in a proactive manner, looking to open up the competition further in future.

I choose to be positive about this. This is just the start. People shouldn’t assume this is the final stage or the final concept, quite the opposite, this is the first step on a long journey of a new era. Progress can and will be made from here.

Further Reading

If you are at all interested in the subject of new car development I strongly recommend you read the following pieces:

Transcript and video replay of the announcement, courtesy of Pressdog;

Also take a read of this and this from Pressdog, especially the fantastic discussions in the comments;

A look of the pros and cons by Marshall Pruett of SPEED – he makes some very good points and he’s right to be critical, but perhaps he’s overly negative in some aspects;

Mixed feelings from George at OilPressure;

There are plenty more, and more will undoubtedly follow, if you see anything at all of interest please be sure to link to them in the comments as I’d love to read them, I’m lapping up this stuff.

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5 thoughts on “IndyCar – A New Hope

  1. I look forward to seeing more details about this. I feel like it’s a pretty decent idea though I think how good I feel will depend on how much leeway is given on those kits.

  2. You’re 100% correct that it’s an interesting middle ground. It’s an option that I, among many, many others, threw out there as an idea months ago, but I’d thought was not going to be on the table at all because it wasn’t discussed by the ICONIC panel as a legit option (mainly because they kept their mouths completely shut). Anyway, I’m encouraged because they’ve left a lot of latitude in this new strategy for new involvement in the series by auto manufacturers, specialty aero and composite shops, and definitely by new teams. It’s not clear yet if we needed a homerun and just got a standing double (that’s baseball talk, by the way ;) ), but I’m definitely hopeful that this was a step in the right direction.

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