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INDIANAPOLIS -- If you were hoping for a technological revolution from the IZOD IndyCar Series, you're going to be disappointed.
You're not going to see turbine or diesel engines, six-wheeled cars or Formula One levels of aerodynamic sophistication at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway anytime soon. Probably not in your lifetime.
What you will see over the next three to eight years is slow, steady, heavily regulated development of the basic Dallara DW12 package that is already in its second season of competition, with the goal of safely improving the performance of the car enough to set a new track record at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by 2016 for the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500.
Derrick Walker, the recently appointed president of competition and operations for INDYCAR, laid out the basic elements of a 10-year plan to increase the speed of the cars while maintaining or improving safety.
|Ed Carpenter won the pole for the 2013 Indy 500 at 228.762 mph, about 8 mph slower than the track record of 236.986 mph set by Arie Luyendyk in 1996.|
Here's a synopsis of what to expect:
• 2014: A new floor designed to reduce inherent lift in the DW12 design
• 2015: Implementation of engine manufacturer-branded bodywork
• 2016: Increased engine and tire performance
• 2017: Teams allowed individual development of basic car
• 2019: Possible introduction of new body/engine formula
Though it wasn't stated directly, it's likely that the controversial DW12 -- which has polarized fans with its ungainly looks -- could be utilized through the 2021 season.
"The more we thought about it, the more we had to look out long term," Walker remarked. "We went as far out as we could imagine, asking: 'What is the lifespan of this car realistically, the main components? What could we do that would maintain stability of that package?'
"Our long-term competition strategy is designed to build on the foundation of our current package, with progressive and methodical enhancements in conjunction with our manufacturers, teams and drivers."
Over the past year and a half, the DW12 spec chassis has been praised for the way it has seemingly equalized the competition in the IndyCar Series. At the Detroit Grand Prix, for instance, the dual races were won by small teams Dale Coyne Racing and Schmidt Hamilton Motorsports. No driver from the mighty Penske Racing and Ganassi Racing teams has finished in the top three in the past five IndyCar Series races.
But even though the IndyCar Series now has two competing engine manufacturers (Chevrolet and Honda) after a six-year period of exclusive Honda supply, the parity in the series is more down to the spec-car formula -- and limitations on its development by teams -- than anything else.
The DW12 was designed with more of an eye toward safety than speed, and the extreme amount of drag caused by almost enclosing the car's rear wheels with huge side pods and rear "bumpers" created a struggle to post decent lap times in superspeedway trim, such as at Indianapolis.
INDYCAR allowed extra turbocharger boost for qualifying at Indianapolis, and the additional 40-50 horsepower boosted speeds by about 4 mph. Ed Carpenter claimed pole position for the Indianapolis 500 at 228.762 mph, about 8 mph slower than the track record of 236.986 mph set by Arie Luyendyk in 1996.
With "A New Track Record!" as an ingrained element of Indianapolis 500 lore, series and speedway officials believe that going after a new mark will help rejuvenate interest in the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar Series in general.
|Scott Dixon on wanting more power in today's car: "You know drivers -- even if we had 1,000 horsepower, we'd be asking for 1,005."|
"The fans want to see some differentiation," Walker said. "As much as I would like to turn the clock back, I'm not so sure 'back to the future' is the best way to do that. I think we need to keep stability, keep rubbing on it. So this is a very conservative step, for sure. This is not earth shattering, but there is some newness in it. It's going to look a little different. It's going to introduce an aero race with the two manufacturers, which they want. It's going to give some differentiation for the teams and their cars, and the fans hopefully will recognize that. But it's not the magic bullet that's going to fix IndyCar."
Of course, all of this is incumbent upon Chevrolet and Honda -- and any other potential manufacturer -- agreeing to go along with INDYCAR's proposed plan. Walker said he hopes to secure their basic approval within the next month.
"We knew aero kits were coming, but the devil is in the details of what we can develop, how we can develop it, and the timetable to do it," commented Honda Performance Development president Art St. Cyr. "We need to take it back internally and decide what it all means, because this is a little bit different than what we were expecting.
"It doesn't do the manufacturers in the series any good if you can't tell a Chevy from a Honda," St. Cyr added. "Honda is an innovative company. We want to compete in the area of technical prowess. We want the racing to be fast and interesting, but how that happens -- whether it's engine development or aero development or tire development -- we have to make sure it's good racing. But to show Honda's technical expertise in engineering is really our goal."
Not surprisingly, IndyCar Series teams are already divided about the future path of technical development. Coyne, for example, believes that series management should be focusing on improving IndyCar's dismal television ratings rather than chasing new track records.
Others were more positive. "What I liked best is there's a flow chart of where we're going together," said Target/Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull. "That's the first time in a long time that we've seen something like that -- a plan that has some action and a directed agenda.
"What's great about that is we can go back to our sponsors and the guys that work for us -- the commercial people that are trying to find us money for the future -- and tell them what the series' direction really is. I'm also pleased by the fact that Derrick wants everybody to work together, and he understands teamwork. I think that deserves support not only from inside his office, but from all of us. I'm happy with the fact that the pace is defined now."
IndyCar Series drivers applauded the quest for additional speed tied in with safety, but they are also of different minds on where the focus needs to be.
The drivers are unanimous in their desire for additional power, especially in road racing trim. Although the DW12 has decent pace on road and street courses, the speed comes from the massive amount of downforce produced by the car's huge front and rear wings.
"Hopefully we can bring up the speeds more through straight-line speed -- we're going pretty quick through the corners as it is," said Justin Wilson, who has emerged as a leader among the drivers in terms of working with series officials. "It comes back to horsepower -- getting from one corner to the next corner faster, not just going quick through the corners.
"It's not a simple task, but having 900 horsepower would be pretty cool," he continued. "That would make the cars more of a beast, and hopefully then it would be easier to portray the job the guys are doing in the car and make it look more spectacular. Even the onboard camera doesn't pick that up. You watch the old footage and you see the cars moving around and sliding. In this day and age, race cars seem to either stick or crash. You don't see much sliding. But it's not a simple equation -- it's something that's going to take a bit of time."
Two-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, whose first two years in Indy car racing came in the CART-sanctioned series, is another advocate for the proposed changes.
"I think we need to have some differences between the cars so the fans can tell what a Penske car is or a Chevy or a Honda," he said. "They need to achieve different speeds in different ways. But they also have to recognize that innovation in racing can transition to technology for road cars and mainstream use.
"The real world is efficiency -- fuel mileage, turbos and things like that," Dixon added. "To me, the cars are lacking power for sure -- we're lacking 150-200 horsepower on road and street courses. You know drivers -- even if we had 1,000 horsepower, we'd be asking for 1,005."
Marco Andretti believes that increased speed doesn't necessarily equate to decreased safety, and pointed out other areas that the series could work on to make things safer for the drivers, especially on ovals.
"Track record, man … let's go!" he exclaimed. "I'm all in favor of it. But it's not the extra 10 mph that is the danger -- the restarts when we're six-wide are the dangerous part. So for qualifying, let's turn 'em up and break the record, but then let's turn 'em down for the race. When you turn them down, we're still doing 220 and that's plenty quick enough for the race."
The main thing that has dragged Indy car racing down over the past 40 years is a lack of strong leadership -- a dictator such as Bernie Ecclestone in Formula One, or Bill France in NASCAR. Team owners, some more than others, have often wielded too much power and influence in the decision-making process.
It's encouraging that INDYCAR has laid out a 10-year plan for increasing speed while maintaining safety, but now it is absolutely crucial that INDYCAR itself lays down a strong set of rules without being bullied into compromises by different constituencies.
Hulman & Co. CEO Mark Miles -- by extension, CEO of IMS and INDYCAR -- made a smart move by tabbing the respected Walker as the technical chief that the series has desperately needed for so long.
As the former team manager of Penske Racing and a longtime Indy car team owner, Walker certainly has the skill set for the job.
After decades of witnessing the rancorous relationships between teams, manufacturers and series management, Walker is ideally positioned to guide INDYCAR through the process of gradually introducing technical innovation back into the sport.
But does it really matter? Is it too late to save and rebuild a historically significant sport?
Only time will tell.