(responding to a recent question and answer session with Robin "Cave-in" Miller)
Question: “...Can you explain why Dallara is the only chassis available and why. What kind of contract do they have. When will it expire?...”
Cavin: “Thanks for your long-distance note. The IndyCar Series has stuck with one chassis supplier because it's difficult for a manufacturer to make money on a series such as this with so few cars.”
Question: “I was just wondering if the IRL and Honda plans to add horsepower to the cars for the the road and street courses next year. Like other race fans have been commenting else where, I think the cars look painfully slow on those circuits. Does the IRL even acknowledge this? Do you think they even they think it needs fixing? (Angel, Lafayette, Ind.)”
Cavin: “I've asked about this and there appears to be no current movement toward it for Australia.”
Did anyone notice how Cave-in didn’t answer the reader’s question about more horsepower for road and street courses? The reader asked him about horsepower levels for next year and Cave-in replied with a bogus pseudo-answer about horsepower levels at one event (Surfers) this year.
I suspect the reasons for this lack of response are (a) Cave-in and the IRL “brain trust” hasn’t got a clue about possible horsepower changes and (b) an actual answer would disclose just how far up the creek without a paddle the sport really is.
What’s the actual answer to the reader’s question? Simply that the IRL’s engine formula as it currently stands can’t get there from here.
For a Champ Car fan, me, this is a very satisfying dilemma for Tony and his tools to be facing; because it means that they were hoisted on their own petard.
Without getting into specifics, here is what happened:
Two years before the IRL adopted its current engine formula circa 2002, the auto manufacturers of CART saw the handwriting on the wall and allowed themselves to be seduced by the prospect of the two rival open-wheel series using equipment in common.
George had let it known that his league might consider modifying its upcoming engine formula but insisted that it be a normally-aspirated one.
CART then was faced with the problem that George is now: racecars engaged in road and street races require more horsepower to do them right than do racecars taking part in oval races.
To make it simple, the normally-aspirated engine formula being proposed by the IRL for its use had a practical limit of about 650 bhp; which Tony George figured was about perfect for Indy. With some added performance features, the actual engine formula that was adopted by the league topped out at around 670 bhp. That figure was arrived at after an engine “war” between Honda, Toyota, and Chevrolet/Cosworth, so I think it can be assumed to be close to the practical limits of the formula.
For its needs, however, CART needed a lot more horsepower than that – at least 100 bhp more – to properly race on road and street courses. So, the engine formula being proposed for the IRL couldn’t satisfy the needs of the CART manufacturers. Having sold themselves on a “common” engine formula, however, the engine manufacturers in CART entered into serious discussions with the IRL and its engine manufacturers about modifying their upcoming engine formula to accommodate the needs of manufacturers in both series.
A Toyota engineer came up with a theoretical solution to the problem; it specified a normally-aspirated engine that was capable of much higher rpm than the IRL’s proposed 10,300 rpm limit and use of a sonic orifice (restrictor plate) to limit engine rpm instead of a rev-limiter. This would allow for a lower-rpm IRL version of the shared engine that met the league’s horsepower requirements and a higher-rpm CART version with significantly greater horsepower.
The IRL discussed the modifications to its proposed engine architecture that would allow for the higher-revving CART normally-aspirated engine but in the end adopted an engine formula relatively unchanged from the 2000-2002 IRL specifications. In retrospect it appears that the supposed willingness of the IRL to discuss changes to its engine formula was merely a ploy to try to woo CART’s engine manufacturers into Tony’s fold.
After Toyota took the bait and unilaterally adopted the IRL engine formula as proposed, the league felt no pressure to move forward with a dual-purpose powerplant and it adopted the 2000-2002 engine rules almost without change. About the only concession the league made to CART’s engine manufacturers was a rule change allowing for a second fuel injection nozzle per cylinder that permitted the broader midrange power band needed for road racing. Since the formula didn’t allow the higher rpm and horsepower requirements of CART, however, the IRL changes were meaningless (as no doubt intended).
I speculate that once Toyota and Honda decided to defect to the IRL (in 2001 and 2002 respectively), leaving only Cosworth to support the Champ Car series, they concluded that CART -- with its schedule top-heavy with road races -- was not long for this world. Consequently, the Japanese auto makers took for granted that American open-wheel motor sport would soon be an all-oval affair and they need not concern themselves about the requirements of road racing.
This, then, is where Tony George and the ICS finds itself: stuck with an all-oval engine formula from 2003 that is unsuited for the road races that the league has now undertaken.
The delicious irony is that the same engine formula that George once used to destabilize CART due to its incompatibility with the requirements of road racing has now come full circle to bite him on the ass.
That is why, IMO, the IRL is now trying to interest car makers in supporting a turbocharged engine formula; it is CART’s tried-and-true engine solution applied to Tony’s CART II.
Will it work? Not if you ask me. If no auto manufacturers other than Honda sign up in support of the new turbocharged formula – and they’d be fools if they did – there isn’t enough money in the ICS to underwrite a new formula.
The current Dallara-Honda tops out at 670 bhp and at that horsepower it is dangerously unstable on speedways; having a tendency to fly and to snap-spin and arrow into speedway walls backwards. That’s way the current Dallara is festooned with aerodynamic add-ons and Honda’s Ilmor engine has been detuned to produce less horsepower and more durability.
Thus, the Dallara-Honda is barely suited to speedway work and almost completely unsuited for road racing. To properly go road racing the ICS is going to need a new, more powerful engine and a brand-new chassis; one or the other alone will not provide the needed results, IMO.
If one looks at open-wheel “spec” series (like Formula 3000) historically, they rarely make it past their third equipment cycle. That’s because spec series as a rule don’t have the sort of return on investment (ROI) for its team owners that permit them to keep buying new equipment; even if it is only every three years. The reason that the team owners get painted into a corner with having to periodically buy all-new equipment is that, generally speaking, the spec series owners make most of their money selling new racecars and components to series participants. Thus, the greed of the series owners drives the team owners to the poorhouse.
The spec-series ICS has a slightly different story. Theoretically, the IRL was on a three-year replacement cycle for its equipment since 1997 and it wasn’t a spec series. Ordinarily, as noted, this would be enough of a drain on team resources such that the third cycle (2003-2005) would be its last (and, in a sense, it was). However, Tony George routinely used his series specifications as a pawn in his war with CART; such that in its first five years, the IRL’s team owners had to buy either all-new engines or chassis five times. It was not surprising then when the IRL’s team owners faced a serious financial crisis circa 2001 and the Hulman-George family had to take over much of the expense of underwriting them.
This was a primary consideration in Tony George’s decision to almost completely reorder the outline of the IRL in 2003; Tony was looking for a way for the Japanese carmakers to take over subsidy of the league from the Hulman-Georges. The result was that he had to bow to the wishes of the Japanese firms in creating a motor sport more to their liking and this accommodation required him to ash can the original IRL. Now, five years after the birth of CART II, the IRL is clinging to its third equipment cycle and the Hulman-George family has resumed its financing of the league after all but one of the manufacturers deserted it.
Thus, to embark on the IRL’s crucial fourth equipment cycle, George is going to have to find the money to underwrite it and most of the team owners don’t have it. Hence, Tony is hoping against hope that some new auto manufacturers will enter the ICS and take over the burden of financing it. Lacking new manufacturers, George will have little choice but to fund the changeover himself. It is said that the Hulman-George family has invested $400 million or so to date in creating and maintaining the IRL; do they seem willing to invest another $150 million or so? That’s probably what it is going to cost them over the next three years – the “Centennial Era” – to re-equip the league with brand-new racecars and components.
The question is not if the H-G family can do it but rather if they want to? My guess is that they’re going to talk a good game – after all, talk is cheap – until 2011’s Indy 500 and then decide if it is worth it to them to continue the IRL/ICS. Until then I expect them to make do with the IRL’s third-generation equipment, meaning the Dallara-Ilmor (in case we differ on generational nomenclature), and dream of better days.