Commentary

New Indy car still needs work

Updated: December 22, 2011, 2:12 AM ET
By John Oreovicz | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- What do you get when you design a race car by committee and build it to a price?

The Dallara DW12 Indy car, which has an alarming number of people involved in the Izod IndyCar Series only half-joking that Dallara is Italian for disaster.

The car is named after the late Dan Wheldon, who handled the initial shakedown tests of Italian race car manufacturer Dallara Automobili's first new Indy car design since 2003. But Wheldon was maybe too diplomatic, a PR-minded party-line kind of guy, so he never played up the car's shortcomings. There are many of those, a fact that became obvious when testing moved on to the engine manufacturer phase and the car scared the likes of Dario Franchitti and Tony Kanaan while resolutely refusing to top 216 mph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Following another round of testing at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., Scott Dixon gave the most honest assessment of the car to date, calling it "a bit of a pig" with an even more pronounced pendulum effect than the current Dallara IR03, which is already a tail-heavy car. The numbers don't lie; the DW12 has a weight distribution of 41 percent front, 59 percent rear, as compared to the IR03's 45/55.

[+] EnlargeNew Dallara Car
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireChanges are still ongoing with the new Dallara Indy car.

The car's handling got better during the most recent round of testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but the improvement came from an extreme measure: Placing 26 pounds of lead ballast in the nose of the car to balance out the weight distribution.

Although he admitted he was discouraged by some aspects of early testing of the DW12, Franchitti generally isn't worried about sorting the car out prior to the season-opening Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on March 25.

"Working with the car has been a little bit frustrating," Franchitti said. "Scott says they're starting to make some progress now. But for me, it's very important that the series allows us to fix the car and to work with the car and not paint us into too tight a box. It's important the series allows the latitude to adjust the car to different driving styles. I would say that's the one thing that's kind of concerning me.

"Hopefully they can come up with an elegant engineering solution to fixing the problems of the handling imbalance the car's had."

After initially blaming suppliers for suspension and gearbox components that didn't meet target weight goals, Dallara is finally reacting to the crisis. Revised suspension geometry will help shift the weight forward, and a completely new oval track aero package (floor, sidepods, wings) is under development.

"As requested by INDYCAR, Dallara will design an alternative set of suspensions to move back two inches the front wheels and one inch the rear wheels," stated Andrea Toso, head of research and development and U.S. racing business leader for Dallara Automobili. "Both front and both rear suspensions will be available for the teams from the catalog and can be utilized in any combination front to rear at all the events."

Toso hinted that the Honda engines that powered the initial development car that Wheldon drove were as much as 30 kilograms heavier than anticipated, a situation he said resulted from INDYCAR's insistence on tight price caps and extreme durability standards for the league's engine suppliers.

The updated suspension was not available when the initial batch of 15 cars was delivered to teams on Dec. 15, but the pressure is not as great as it could be because the first oval activity of the 2012 season won't happen until the month of May at Indianapolis. Still, the oval package will essentially be starting at ground zero when testing resumes in the spring.

Dallara is ramping up for a total build of around 60 cars.

"Teams will take delivery of their cars with the current set of suspensions and, should they decide to start the season with the alternative set, they can get free of charge replacement based on the return of the current set," Toso said.

This late redesign represents an opportunity for Dallara and INDYCAR to overcome the universally negative reaction to the DW12's appearance. A poll of more than 6,000 fans at AutoRacing1.com resulted in 98 percent expressing dissatisfaction with the look of the car, especially the bulbous sidepods that shroud the rear wheels.

"Everyone has an opinion," shrugged Will Phillips, project director for INDYCAR's 2012 car.

How could Dallara have gotten it so wrong? There are a number of factors. For starters, it's been nine years since Dallara created a new Indy car chassis, and the IR03 was in many ways an update of the company's 2000 car, albeit with a major change in front suspension philosophy. The key is that since 2003, development of the IR03 was almost exclusively handled by the teams, with little or no factory involvement. As such, Dallara was already somewhat out of touch with its own most recent design.

Dallara had an extremely tight box to work in, courtesy of the requirements made by INDYCAR's ICONIC Committee. Most of those mandates were made in the interest of safety even before Wheldon's death at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (in a Dallara IR03) on Oct. 16, but it appears some of them -- chiefly, the wider floor and sidepods that extend all the way to the outer edge of the rear tires and the rear bumper pods mounted behind the rear wheels -- are contributing to the car's higher-than-anticipated drag and high-speed instability on ovals.

Phillips said the car's controversial sidepods were created in the interest of safety, but he believes they are not the cause of the car's higher-than-anticipated drag.

"Dallara spent an awful lot of time looking at what happens when the old car 'yaws,'" Phillips said, referring to how the car reacts when it snaps sideways from its center axis. "As the car goes into yaw and runs down the track sideways, it can have a tendency to fly. The features of the new car are designed to specifically reduce the yaw characteristics of the car. The new car is roughly 50 percent less likely to have an overturning moment around the center of gravity through a yaw-induced effect."

[+] EnlargeDallara Racing Cars
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesGood racing on ovals was a hallmark of the outgoing Dallara design, but a lot of that came when teams refined the cars over the years.

The worrying thing is that INDYCAR quietly concedes it doesn't know why the DW12 is not working the way the computer simulations say it is supposed to. It's almost as if Dallara was so concerned about how the DW12 would perform if it got sideways or up into the air that it forgot to pay attention to how the car would run in a straight line or through corners.

The 50 percent wind tunnel model of the DW12 was recently retested in an alternate wind tunnel with known characteristics, and the results backed up Dallara's initial numbers. The next step is to take a full-size IR03 (donated by Ganassi Racing) and a DW12 to a 100 percent tunnel and compare the results using real cars.

"We're trying to identify why the theoretical world doesn't match the real world at the racetrack," Phillips admitted. "At very high speeds, we have disparity in the data."

The good news is that the drivers have been generally positive about the DW12 in road racing trim and the car is reportedly already slightly faster than the outgoing car, which admittedly was originally designed exclusively for oval competition.

Championship-winning team owner Chip Ganassi is convinced that Dallara and INDYCAR will get the DW12 right, although it may take more time than expected.

"Everybody has questions about the new car, but I think you have to think back to the car we're retiring now," Ganassi said. "When that car was developed, it took two or three years to get that car right. When we were getting new cars every year in CART, they were just evolutions of a previous car. This new car is somewhat of a revolution. It might take a little extra time to get it what I would say is right for everybody, not necessarily right for just one or two teams.

"I think INDYCAR is keeping an open mind," Ganassi continued. "They've already come out and said, 'OK, we need to change the testing rules.' They seem open to changing things when we need to. So hopefully they'll keep that attitude going forward. It's just a process we have to go working through. The mere fact that the car didn't come out of the box at the current performance level of a car that's been being developed for 12 years, I don't think that's the end of the world. We just need to buckle down and get to work on it."

The Dallara DW12 is not the first bad race car, and it certainly won't be the last. It's a bit disheartening that INDYCAR had nine years to come up with a new car and managed to legislate itself into what looks like a dud so far. But the performance of the car can and will be fixed -- even if it means running 25 pounds of lead weight in the nose.

Here are a few other notable Indy car disasters from the last 40 years. Not all of them had unhappy endings …

1. The 1972 Parnelli "dihedral" car: Parnelli Jones tapped Lotus F1 designer Maurice Phillippe to design an Indy car and Philippe definitely started with a clean sheet of paper. His design featured torsion bar suspension and wings that sprouted at a 45-degree angle out of the sides of the car. Al Unser said it was the worst new car he'd ever driven and Mario Andretti said it wouldn't even go down the straight correctly. The car was slowly converted into a more standard design and while never ultra-fast, it delivered Joe Leonard to the 1972 USAC championship.

2. 1986-87 Penske PC15 and PC16: Roger Penske began building his own Indy cars in 1977 and they were often more competitive than customer cars from Lola or March. Penske hired F1 designer Alan Jenkins to pen a car around the new Ilmor-Chevrolet engine. The resulting PC15 and the updated PC16 were beautiful cars, but they were dog slow. Rick Mears abandoned his PC16 at Indianapolis in 1987 and immediately picked up 8 mph in a year-old March. The team finished out the '87 season in Marches; new designer Nigel Bennett's Penske PC17 design was the class of the CART field in 1988 and Bennett-designed Penskes were front-runners through 1995.

3. March 88C: March dominated the customer car market from 1982 onward. But Lola's 1987 challenger was very successful in the hands of Mario Andretti and Newman/Haas Racing, so other teams started switching to Lola in the winter of 1987-88. When Al Unser Jr. was the only driver to extract speed from the 1988 March design, several teams switched to Lola at midseason and by 1989 March was out of the Indy customer car business.

4. Lola T97/00: Reynard arrived on the Indy car scene in 1994 and quickly ate into Lola's customer car base. Lola's new 1997 design had immediate problems in testing, prompting several teams to make a panicked switch to Reynard just before the season. By 1998, Lola had just one car on the CART grid, but designer Ben Bowlby made continued improvements and Helio Castroneves was often very competitive on ovals in 1999. Bowlby did a major update in 2000, prompting Ganassi Racing and Newman/Haas Racing to switch to Lola. By 2002, Lola had recaptured 95 percent of the customer car market and Reynard had faded from the scene. The 2002 Lola became the de facto spec car of the Champ Car World Series, serving for five years, and it could directly trace its roots to the unloved T97/00.

John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.