Friday, February 12, 2010

The silver vitamin

(by Marshall Pruett speedtv.com 2-12-10)

Will it work? Will it turn? Is Ben Bowlby on crack?

The answers to those questions are yes, yes, and I’d hope not.

I have never seen so much chatter – both positive and negative – about the future of the IndyCar Series as I did on Wednesday immediately after the Delta Wing launch.

Ben Bowlby’s group managed to re-write the accepted norm for the appearance of an IndyCar by simply pulling the cover off of his creation, and if you sat back and watched as a spectator, the attendees of the launch and IndyCar fans on the internet came away with two wildly different impressions.

The various forums and blogs, for the most part, have treated the Delta Wing design like a group of villagers chasing away Frankenstein with torches. One thing stood out immediately: The Delta Wing group have a huge public relations campaign ahead of them if the current fan base is going to buy into their chassis.

In a poll asking people what they dislike more – killing puppies, raising taxes, or the Delta Wing -- I fear the car would hover somewhere around second.

What we saw happen at the Chicago Auto Show was the auto racing equivalent of President Obama’s health care plan. One side believes that without the Delta Wing plan, IndyCar will crumble due to years of escalating costs and inaction. The opposition feels that if the Delta Wing plan goes into effect, the imperfect, but fully functional plan we already have will be cast aside, and IndyCar will crumble as a result.

Like the health care plan, concessions will likely have to be made on both sides if everyone is to walk away satisfied, but the question of which party will have to make the most concessions is an interesting theme to keep track of in the coming months.

A lot of questions were answered at the launch, but not nearly as many as I’d hoped, so I pinned down as many people as possible to answer a variety of items. Here are 25 different Delta Wing subjects with some commentary and answers thrown in that I think are worth exploring:

But how different is it really?

For some time, the consensus amongst fans has been that a new car is needed to replace the unsightly and decrepit Dallara. The Italian form released some rather cartoonish images of proposed 2012 cars while Swift showed a much more polished product, but I was left wondering how much change people really want? A little bit? Just enough to not look like the donkey we have right now?

The 2012 Dallaras and Swifts are different than the current Dallara, but not so much that they draw a line in history and make you forget about all you thought an IndyCar could be. They look updated, and slightly renovated, but nothing close to a complete makeover.

If the 2012 car is just a mildly evolved version of what we’ve seen in CART, ChampCar or the IndyCar Series over the past decade, can we expect to win back the throngs of fans that left during the CART/ChampCar/IndyCar days with something that looks similar to what they’ve seen before?

If people walked out of the first movie, why would anyone think they’d pay money to come back and watch the sequel?

Without a doubt, the biggest question the League needs to answer is whether the 2012 car is meant to appease the admittedly small fan base we have left, or to ignite a newfound interest amongst the masses?

Do they play it safe and keep their base, or do they swing for the fences and hope to fill the stands with new faces? With Dallara and Swift, and now Delta Wing, they have a solution to go in either direction.

A mothballed mistake

If there’s a recent case study that warns the League against playing it safe, it needs only to look at the series it digested in 2008.

ChampCar found itself in a similar situation with a long-in-the-tooth Lola chassis (designed by Ben Bowlby, ironically) that needed to be freshened. As much as I’d love to see the Panoz DP01 brought back to life, and no matter how good the car was, it failed to attract a new audience.

Everyone loved the DP01 (once its teething problems were sorted), but it didn’t translate into bigger crowds, more TV viewers, New teams, or to move them up the packed sports entertainment food chain. It was great for those inside the series, but did nothing to improve ChampCar’s place in the market. From 20 yards away, or on TV, it looked to the casual fans like a typical IndyCar, and was immediately dismissed as unremarkable.

The series was gone after one season of the DP01 being pressed into service, and while I don’t completely blame the chassis for the series’ failure, I do think that by opting for something that looked safe and familiar, they sealed their fate. At a time when something groundbreaking was needed, ChampCar’s decision to build an evolutionary chassis led to their extinction.

I’m not the first to say it, but I do firmly believe that unless the 2012 car – and no matter which car(s) are pressed into production -- causes the average person to do a double-take and spend a few minutes trying to absorb the groundbreaking shape they see in front of them, the whole 2012 exercise will be a waste of time. But it can’t be ugly.

Too strange, too different, and just plain wrong

It’s hard to argue that the Delta Wing’s looks need some attention. The car challenges everyone – me included – to accept its appearance.

It asks people to make a giant leap all at once, and as history often proves, most people are reluctant to do that in one sitting. This asks for people to go from grasping the concept of paper airplanes to digesting everything that makes the Stealth Bomber able to fly in a single afternoon, and the backlash has shown it.

“When you first see it, it’s radical, it’s different, and it changes everything,” two-time IndyCar champion Scott Dixon said. “Unfortunately, most people are afraid of change, but like everything, you have to update yourself to what’s going on. It’s 30 years ahead of itself, with nothing to bridge the gap in-between. It’s interesting to see some people are thinking outside the IndyCar box. It’s out of left field, but I think that’s cool.”

I think of the Delta Wing like a big silver vitamin. It isn’t necessarily what I’d call pretty, and it isn’t easy to digest, but it is what’s best for the present and future health of the series. It’s the ‘I know it’s good for me, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it’ IndyCar.

“Road cars of the future, and it’s already happening, will look much different,” its designer said. “They will be styled differently to achieve maximum aerodynamic efficiency, will be made of newer materials to weigh less, and will have smaller, more efficient engines. Those are the same targets we are employing here, but in the realm of motorsports. Please remember that this is not a styling exercise. This is form following function. It is a bit of a shocker, but given time, we hope that people will adjust over time. It’s still an open-wheel car, despite the backlash to the contrary. We are trying to lead for a change, rather than follow.”

If we can agree that its visuals need work (apparently, I wasn’t the only one who thought it looks like the phallic jet plane flown by SNL’s The Ambiguously Gay Duo…an IndyCar driver forwarded a photo of it to me soon after the launch), let’s move on to the other aspects of what the car represents.

One major item has been ignored by Delta Wing. Form might follow function, but the grandstands aren’t going to be filled with blind techno-geeks. Visuals matter.

Mickey Thompson’s Sears AllState streamliner from 1964 was incredibly innovative with its drag reducing shrouded wheels (just as the Delta Wing utilizes), but it was also ugly as sin.

Asking people to update their mental image of an IndyCar is one thing. Asking them to tell their eyes what they perceive as ugly is actually appealing is altogether different. Fighting human nature isn’t a battle Delta Wing needs to take on right now.

I’m all for technology and efficiency, but not at the expense of basic curb appeal. A crazy looking car that borders on fugly won’t bring the fans back. Sexiness also matters, and the Delta Wing doesn’t have an ounce of it. Shock and awe is what we need, but the good kind, not the ‘please put a bag over its head’ version.

If only the DVD player was broken on Wednesday

I was impressed by the studio photos of the Delta Wing car, and even how it looked onstage at the show, but the simulation lap they created managed to unravel things for me. Racing around on a simulated Mid-Ohio circuit, it went from being space-age to somewhat contrived. As Nigel Roebuck once described Ken Tyrrell, it was “gawky, and angular.”

If they’d left the Mid-Ohio lap out of the presentation, I think it would have helped sell the concept and to create some anticipation while people wait to see it run around the real Mid-Ohio.

I might be a simpleton, but that simulation swayed me from somewhat liking the real car to being transfixed as how bad it looked on track. It looked too much like the Ace & Gary mobile, and once I imagined seeing it race from atop a hill or from the bleachers, I became concerned about its trackside appeal.

They can handle it

A game-changer like the Delta Wing needed a much deeper list of Q&A items made available from the outset. The general sense that it was too advanced to explain all at once isn’t something I agree with. IndyCar fans tend to know the history of the cars, to appreciate the technology, and have a desire to learn more about cutting edge concepts. Assuming the finer details were best kept for a future was a public relations misstep.

“From what I’ve seen, most have now asked what we were thinking, or why we did all of the various things on the car that are different or challenge the norm,” Bowlby admitted. “Now that we’ve revealed the car, and that was the first stage in the process, we will begin to explain, piece by piece, why the car is the way that it is. We will unfold the story and I think people will understand it much better. In person, people were breath taken.”

Delta Wing’s Bill Lafontaine said he knows the car needs to be seen to be understood. “One of the things we want to do is to get the car out in front of people so they can see it and can walk around it and receive it in person. Doing it through photos or a simulation lap just doesn’t do the car justice.”

This isn’t the first time an IndyCar has made people uncomfortable

IndyCar fans are smart and they know what they like. If the Delta Wing is to win in the court of public opinion, Bowlby and Co. will have to explain and answer all of the aspects of the car that question what we’ve known an IndyCar to be since John Cooper showed up at Indy in 1961 with the engine mounted at the wrong end.

As the Delta Wings are surely aware, Cooper’s first IndyCar was met with the same concern.

Will it work? Will it turn? Has John Cooper been indulging in the liquor cabinet?

The rear-engine revolution angered just about everybody (except for the people that ushered it in), left the old guard – the drivers and owners – railing against the silly European car that they said would never succeed at Indy, and started the clock on the roadster manufacturers needing to join the revolution or risk being left by the wayside.

The Cooper was a threat – to people’s livelihoods and to the generation of cars and conventions that had been made redundant overnight. It was a forget everything you’ve ever known car, just like the first Miller or roadster to race at the Speedway.

I can’t say if the Delta Wing is one of those cars, but it has the potential to be the first Cooper-esque car to run at the Brickyard since John F. Kennedy was in office. I’m all for honoring history, but I’m less fond of seeing our sport repeat it decade after decade.

Everything we’ve seen since the Cooper T54 raced at Indy – the McLarens, the Eagles, the Coyotes, the Lolas, the Marchs, the Reynards, the GForces, and the Dallaras – all carry a lineage back to 1961. Wings have sprouted, Gurney flaps have emerged, slicks have appeared, and electronics have become commonplace, but the basic layout of the cars we’ll see at the 2010 Indy 500 will have 48-year-old roots.

Should we let those roots grow into year 49 and year 50, or should we pull up those roots and plant something new – in the same spirit that Cooper did so long ago?

Speaking with Sir Jack Brabham, he made it clear that as much as the Delta Wing is a departure from the current IndyCar spec, it would have to go a lot farther to completely break his Cooper’s mold.

“The Delta Wing car appears to be rear-engined like all the old Indy cars and has a radical body. I think the Cooper was more radical because of the engine in the rear and proved to be superior in the corners as I could pass the other cars there. Of course they had twice the speed and power down the straight. As every racing car since has been rear-engined since, the Delta Wing can hardly be called radical.”

For some, the Delta Wing goes too far. For others, like Sir Jack, it still has a long way to go if it’s to re-write history.

Amazing.

Fight the power!

The feeling amongst the paddock, according to Target Chip Ganassi Racing owner, Chip Ganassi, is that after years of playing a passive role in choosing what they get to race, Delta Wing would be the device that empowers the paddock to form the cars and the costs to fit a message that serves their interests.

“We don’t want to be told what to buy, when to buy it, and how to buy it. We’re the ones having to fork out millions of dollars on this stuff. Shouldn’t we have some say on how it gets spent? Who knows more about where to and where not to spent money on race cars than team owners?”

Ganassi said the Delta Wings have found a staunch supporter and strong ally from an unexpected source.

“The team owners are the ones that know the real costs and how fans and sponsors perceive the series. Ever since Tony George started his own team, he gets it. That’s why he’s on our side! He knows how expensive it is, how much control we don’t have, and how much money gets spent on things that we don’t need or cost too much. He’s a great partner to have.”

It isn’t just a what?

So far, we’ve only spoken of the Delta Wing as a car. The biggest message from the group from Wednesday’s launch was that whether or not their design is accepted for 2012, they want their company to be the new, independent technical arm of the IndyCar Series.

Just as the Formula One Teams Association created the Technical Working Group (TWG), the IndyCar owners have formed Delta Wing to serve as a paddock-led rules, design, and production oversight group.

“That’s the biggest thing people don’t get,” Ganassi told me. “This isn’t just about a car. The League has led this stuff so far, but the paddock is filled with engineers, designers, and the rest of the people who have their fingers on the pulse of everything that goes into making IndyCars. Delta Wing is meant to be a new layer – one that hasn’t existed up until now – that works between the Series and the manufacturers to look after the concept and the production side of what we go racing with.”

2008 St. Petersburg winner, Graham Rahal, was just as inspired as Ganassi to clarify the new real estate Delta Wing is meant to occupy.

“The point that needs to be gotten across to everybody is that it’s more than just a chassis. It’s a concept of how open-wheel racing should be. A guy in engineering school right now could design and create a part for the new car. He could come up with something that gets raced at the Indianapolis 500. When was the last time IndyCar was relevant to all but a few people that had exclusive rights to design or build things? When was the last time a student decided he wanted to get his degree and go work in IndyCar? They don’t. They go into aviation, or to NASCAR because that’s where they can use their minds and their education. That’s where cool things are. This unlocks that door for people to join our series. It gets a whole new generation engaged where they haven’t been for so long.”

So, the Delta Wing is a chassis design, but Delta Wing, LLC, is also an organization made up of the collective IndyCar paddock who wants to be in charge of the 2012 process, no matter what the League chooses for its car or cars.

I’m not sure how clearly that has been communicated to everyone, and I’m not sure if Dallara, Swift, and Lola would be fully supportive of this. I’ll have to do some follow-up on that topic.

Today Indy; tomorrow…the world

Put a bunch of wealthy guys in a room and they’ll come up with a way to take over the world, right? Chip Ganassi insists the Delta Wings aren’t focused on global domination, much less pushing out other constructors.

“I still think people believe we only want to be a constructor, to build it all, control it all, and that just ain’t the case. All we’re asking is for Delta Wing to be involved in the process. What we’ve talked about – having an open source approach, posting all of the manufacturers with what they make for the car and how much it costs posted on our website, inviting any and everyone to bid on making the entire car or just the parts they might be best at – these are all things that we think we’re best at overseeing.”

“It’s not us versus them,” Ganassi continued. “This isn’t Delta Wing against Dallara, or Swift, or whoever. They can build the thing, for all we care. That’s the open source concept again. Anyone has the ability to bid to build all or parts of the car. We’re asking the League to approve our chassis – and you haven’t seen the final version, yet – as the official spec for 2012, and anyone can build it. Anyone. If Audi wanted to hire Dallara to build their car, they can, and if anyone else wanted Dallara to build them a car, they’d have to. If Ford wanted Swift to build their car, go for it. There’s no exclusivity here.”

So they’d be like cover bands?

I couldn’t fathom how or why anyone other than Delta wing would build their design if it was a spec car. First, I don’t want to see 25 identical Delta Wings. That bores me. We have that now, but dressed in a different body.

Second, why would Dallara, Swift, or Lola want to be like a cover band that makes a living knocking out copies of music and lyrics that aren’t their own?

I didn’t get a complete picture of how it would work, and I’m not sure the Delta Wings have it completely sorted, but Ganassi eased my concerns to some degree.

“As far as the looks, I would expect for there to be areas each constructor must do the same, and others where it would be open for interpretation. It’s not meant to be a one-make series with our design proposal. We don’t want to fall into the same trap we’re in right now.”

If we’re talking about this in F1 terms, I’d be OK with it. The Delta Wing looks crazy enough to smack people in the head from 100 yards. If it takes getting within 20 yards to tell a Dallara from a D-Wing, that’s fine with me. With F1’s new rules, a stub-nosed Renault looks a lot different than the tapered spoon-nosed Red Bull at 10 yards. If the 2012 rules call for any tighter control over the appearance than that, count me out.

Like Linux, but for IndyCars

The 2012 car being mentioned as ‘open source’ was rattled off by everyone I spoke with like machine gun fire. It has been so long since almost complete freedom was allowed in IndyCar racing, it feels a tad bit foreign to talk about open competition being not only encouraged, but required.

“This is a culture change,” said Panther Racing co-owner, John Barnes, “we can’t allow a single manufacturer to dictate how we spend our money. We have to have some connection to that. And our sport has to be relevant to the people of today. With the open source way of doing things, it opens the sport back up.”

That being said, it doesn’t mean everyone can come up with their own mouse traps. I would love to see a number produced – a percentage – that quantifies how much freedom manufacturers would be expected to have with everything from uprights to body panels.

If Delta wing produces a spec for an anti-roll bar that has a specific spring rate, could one company meet the spec with a large diameter hollow bar, while another produced a small diameter solid bar? Could teams buy both? Would both be legal? It has the potential for getting complicated and confusing.

Thankfully, Ben Bowlby explained his broader vision of how open source would work on the component level, and also with chassis production Thankfully, they don’t expect the other constructors to pump out carbon copies with Delta Wing’s label on the inside.

“Here’s what we’ve established. Delta Wing, LLC will publish our entire production design to a dedicated website, and access will be unrestricted to fans, teams, and constructors. Every design is free to download. Anyone can submit new designs for approval, but only licensed and approved suppliers can manufacture components, and we’ll set maximum prices that everyone must stay within. This allows us to heavily regulate costs, to contain them over time, and to keep the high dollar teams from developing small bits and keeping them to themselves.

“This also encourages the manufacturers, new or old, to keep things fresh and to innovate” Bowlby went on. “If someone comes up with a better widget, they can submit it and if it is approved by the sanctioning board, it will be available to the entire paddock. We’ve set the target at being value-rich. Requiring expensive engines or exotic parts has hindered the sport from growing, and here, we believe an open source plan will invite businesses of all sizes, from car companies to nut and bolt manufacturers, to become a part of the next generation IndyCar Series.”

So who else supports it?

The Delta wing project started life under Chip Ganassi’s roof, but once Bowlby’s work -- the car and the overall concept – was shown to the other members of the paddock, John Barnes says everyone quickly adopted it as their own.

“I can’t speak for the League; you’d have to ask them what they think, but I can speak for the team owners and tell you that everyone thinks this is the only path to go down.”

Ganassi backed up the assertion of his rival/partner. “When was the last time Chip Ganassi, Roger Penske, John Barnes, and Dennis Reinbold agreed on anything? We all do with Delta Wing.”

Most drivers have been hesitant to go on record about the car – one that I spoke with who asked for his comments to be used anonymously later called and asked that I pull them altogether. Interestingly, the most vocal driver to support the Delta Wing also happens to be one of the youngest and most talented in the field.

“You know what? If the other [drivers] won’t, I’ll be the first one to come out and say it: I want the Delta Wing,” Graham Rahal proclaimed. “I saw a picture of a ’75 Eagle and a 2009 Dallara and it’s the same. It has wings, a wide track, the engine in the back, and everything we’ve seen for decades. No matter what anybody wants to say, whether they agree with the car or not, I’ve had more Twitter responses on the Delta Wing than on anything else in the past year-and-a-half. It’s already getting a rise out of people, and that’s what we need. We need those fans, the media, and the sponsors to stand up and pay attention.

“What this does is provide a revolution, and that’s not something we’ve seen in this sport since before I was even born. This is a whole new ball game. It’s not easy for people to swallow. It doesn’t look like what people have come to know as an IndyCar. But in this economy, to get the car manufacturers back, the fans back, and my generation; this is what we need.”

Mr. No says yes

If there was a single owner whose fervent support of the Delta Wing concept stunned me the most, it was John Barnes. Barnes has a reputation for being his own man, and anything but a follower. For someone with a history of saying no, he says he never considered turning against the 2012 car.

“Last August, I got a call from Tony George. He said these guys from Delta Wing wanted to show the owners a presentation. Once I saw it, I said, ‘where do I sign up?’ I’m a 58-year-old man…I have a hard time even turning my computer on…but when I saw the car, I knew this is what we needed to be all about. This is Speed Racer stuff. And then they started talking about the business model and how it worked. This is what we need to survive. I see the full potential of this thing. I see the pitfalls of how so many other areas of motorsports have gone backwards, and this to me is the future.”

Like ChampCar and the insular support that encouraged them to build the Panoz DP01, the current IndyCar paddock is fully behind the Delta Wing design, but as I mentioned earlier, they can’t allow themselves to get caught up in the rapture of their new toy. If they build a new car that the fans either hate or are apathetic towards, we’re winding the clock back to 2007.

Two non-stop questions have been asked about the Delta Wing design, and no matter how tired they might grow from answering them, they have to dig in and hold their ground.

But the display car didn’t look like it could turn?

Indeed, and that was another area that could have been done better by the group. Building a full-scale model to use as a show car took precedence over making the car’s steering system functional, as Ben Bowlby shared. It gave the doubters a wide berth to drive their criticism through.

“Yes, some are concerned about the car’s ability to turn, either from the overall design, or from having noted the mockup doesn’t not allow for space for the wheels to turn. We’ve gone through at least 50 revisions or updates to the car seen here today, and the latest is what will go into production. The front wheels will indeed turn.”

“We had a million questions on that,” Ganassi said frankly, “how will it turn? Will it steer from the rear?... On top of the improved weight and aero, it has a torque-sensing diff, which if you know about how that works, it uses the drive wheels to help turn the car kind of like how a tank uses its tracks to go left or right. Everything works together here.”

No, seriously, display model or not, there’s no way it will go around a corner

Don’t tell that to Graham Rahal if you aren’t prepared to deal with very passionate answer.

“It’s lightweight. You don’t need huge front tires to turn a lightweight vehicle. It’s engineering and physics,” he said with a touch of frustration. “The more weight you have on the front tires, the more it will understeer. Now we take the fact that the front of the car weighs almost nothing, at least to what we have now. Tires that are four inches wide will do the job. This isn’t some new principal in the universe. They aren’t making up how physics work.”

Up, up and away with wings

If we continue the ‘if we accept that’ theme, if we accept that the car will turn left and right when the drivers tell it to, the next area that needs explaining is how the Delta Wing will succeed as a wingless wonder. That’s an easy one.

Wings have never caught on in the automotive world due to their extreme inefficiency and reduction in fuel consumption figures. They make cars corner faster, but if that loss of wing-based downforce can be recovered using a large floor beneath the car, which the Delta Wing does, why keep using wings? Because that’s what we’re used to seeing? Because that’s the norm? Continued use of wings is further proof that evolution has been frozen in IndyCar racing.

“I told Ben that I want a car that can pass and slipstream,” said Delta Wing CEO Dan Partel. Partel, no stranger to open-wheel racing in Europe and America, has seen how hard passing has become since inverted airfoils first appeared in the 1960s.

“I remember when wings were seen as a bad thing, but now they are seen as mandatory. Without them, the Delta Wing will bring the passing back to IndyCar. If fans want to see passing restricted to pit lane where its been for years, then let’s keep the wings. If they want to see passing on the track, you have to get rid of the wings and their turbulence, so that’s what we did and built the design around that philosophy.”

“We’re pushing air around, instead of a car,” said Ganassi. “If anyone thinks we need another big engine for 2012, we don’t. In today’s world, it’s kind of distasteful, isn’t it? It doesn’t fit the move towards more efficient cars, does it? The current car is almost double the weight of the Delta Wing, and double the downforce. If you cut the weight and the downforce in half, you only need half the power. They are inefficient, and for what we’re proposing, the entire car is about efficiency. A [Sprint] Cup car has less drag than an IndyCar right now…does anybody realize that?

“Think about all the extra fuel an IndyCar burns just to cut through the air. As we’ve seen, cars with wings have trouble passing each other. You can’t get close without losing the front end. Why stick with something that hurts the quality of the show and makes you get 2 miles-per-gallon?”

The Delta wing uses its floor – a massive plan area that is bigger than anything we’ve seen – to produce downforce. Flat bottoms are the norm these days, and this has the biggest bottom of them all (cue Queen’s ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’).

Like I said, that’s an easy one.

Will the driver survive a frontal impact?

Once again, that’s only something that can be determined once full size crash testing is conducted. Beyond its steering, I think the biggest concern is the Delta Wing’s crash worthiness.

It was obvious I was the 563rd person to ask Ben Bowlby about whether his creation could survive a major impact, but he didn’t let that stand in the way rattling off some interesting facts.

“Our design is essentially an extremely long nose, and our initial crash simulations shows it absorbs massive energy due mostly to its cross section which far surpasses what the Dallara provides,” Bowlby continued. “Since we’ve seen how great the forces are that our structure can handle, we’re now working on lightening it to better balance the Gs-to-absorption ratio. You don’t want it too heavy and stiff, nor too light and soft.”

Scott Dixon was also keen on the idea. “The driver sits so far back in the thing, it’s kind of crazy compared to what we have today. Your feet will be almost five feet away from the front of the car, and I’m guessing that’s double what we have now.”

There is another radical element of the Delta Wing’s design is the front structure Bowlby refers to. Rather than simply have a detachable crumple structure – ala the current IndyCar nose – the Delta Wing will carry its front suspension, brakes and wheels in this removable sub-structure.

“There’s a sub-chassis that is well attached to the chassis, and it has a its inner structure and an outer structure – one that acts as the first layer of crash absorption that can be changed by teams and replaced after an impact. Right now, if the outside of the exposed chassis -- from the cockpit forward -- is hit, damage is done to the Dallara tub. The Delta Wing has a replaceable outer skin, or crash surface, that acts as the first line of defense.”

This aspect of the car absolutely floored me. I’m accustomed the stressed members at the back of the car – the engine, bellhousing, gearbox and suspension – all having their loads bed through just a few pickup points at the rear bulkhead on the chassis. The concept of having the front suspension and all of the components involved with the wheels attach as a stressed member is brilliant. I’ve studied racing designs for 30 years and never imagined such a thing. The narrow tires and lack of wings pale in comparison to this, in my mind.

We get by with a little help…

I would expect Firestone, the current sole supplier of IndyCar tires, to support any reputable constructor that asks for their help to build tires for their new chassis. To date, according to Bowlby, Delta Wing is the only one to partner with Firestone on a 2012 project.

“It’s very fair to say that Firestone appreciates our goals, and what we’ve set out to achieve. They have been incredibly supportive. They allowed us to unveil the car on their stand at Chicago, and they have committed to manufacture tires for the car. They are building tires for it right now, and in fact, we are the only potential 2012IndyCar supplier that have engaged them.”

Whose mill powers the mule?

“A current, proven 4-cylinder turbo engine will be used in the test car,” Bowlby said without committing a manufacturer’s name to the project. “It will have a smaller turbo, will be de-tuned, and will run on lower revs. All of these things get us our target power of 300-horsepower while extending the rebuilds to unheard of intervals – at least 6000 miles. If you stress an engine to make peak power, you spend hundreds of thousands on rebuilds. We see no need for that. We’ll also test our fuel flow control method, and believe this kind of reasonable engine plan will draw the interest of major and private manufacturers. We’d like as many engine suppliers as possible.”

I’ve confirmed that it won’t have a Mazda MZR-R sportscar engine, but that doesn’t preclude Delta Wing from working with England’s AER, makers of the MZR-R, from supplying their own private version of the unit that inspired Mazda’s motor. Audi is still at work on their ‘World Engine’ concept, something Bowlby is an admitted fan of. That engine happens to fit everything he mentions above, and could be ready in time for the Delta Wing’s maiden track test in August, but as it isn’t current or proven, it wouldn’t qualify under Bowlby’s criteria.

Or as Graham Rahal noted, Honda’s RDX engine could be used, but so far, and as Honda Performance Development’s Roger Griffiths noted in his blog last month, they have their eyes on something with a few more cylinders for 2012. “We will design a V-6 engine and horsepower is difficult to say, but we are targeting a 225 mph average lap speed at Indianapolis.”

The proof is in the sledding

What many drivers have told me, and all in private, is that before they’ll publicly support it, they want to see footage of it being crash tested on a sled, and of it lapping around an oval and a road course doing all of the things Bowlby says it can do.

Some of the IndyCar Series staff have said the same things.

The Delta Wing, I believe, won’t be accepted or embraced on words and testimonials alone. People’s need to see visual, not simulated proof, so give them what they want. Run it into a wall. Lap the Speedway at 225mph. Carve up a road course at or below the current lap record, and then big proverbial thorn will be removed from an awful lot of paws.

Oooh, oooh, ooh…Mr. Carter

Despite the silence from so many of his competitors, a fired up Graham Rahal wants to be in the car when the Delta Wing is ready to turn its first laps.

“The next step is for Delta Wing to build the car to test, and I’ll tell you right now that I’ll be first in line to test it. I want to see how it feels. People can say what they want to say, but I can’t wait to see someone like Suzuki put a 300-horsepower Hayabusa bike engine in the car, or Honda to put a 300-horsepower 4-cylinder turbo out of their RDX SUV into the car, or Nissan brings a naturally aspirated V6 for us to go racing. Then we have character back into the series. Then we have sound a differential so it doesn’t sound like a bunch of trucks running around the track. Just tell me where and when.”

Scott Dixon said he’ll fall in right behind Rahal. “I will love getting a chance to drive it, and I hope I’m one of the first that gets to do so.”

It’s your turn to pick up the tab

Rumors had the State of Indiana paying for the first Delta Wing to be produced, but that was dispelled on Wednesday. Delta Wing’s Bill Lafontaine answered on where the money will come from, and it shouldn’t be a surprise.

“There is no doubt it costs a lot of money to build a prototype, and the team owners made a commitment in this direction when we formed Delta Wing, LLC. I can’t tell you what’s in the bank account, but there will be over a million dollars invested into this project and the first car. Making no decision is itself a decision, so rather than wait for agreements and commitments first, we’ve gone ahead to build the first car. Randy Bernard will soon have some decisions to make [on the 2012 car] in a short amount of time. We have proposed and option, and the opportunity is theirs to take.”

Will they sell it in the discount aisle at Target?

As for what it would cost to buy, John Barnes was rather blunt about the much needed cost reduction the Delta Wing would offer. Provided the projections are accurate, and I haven’t had a chance to review the numbers yet, it would be a no-brainer. Even if they are off by 50 percent, the savings would be unreal.

“Two cars cost half of what one current IndyCar costs. We’re talking about doing two complete cars with engines for $1.1 million. Right now, the current Dallara is $680,000, and that doesn’t include electronics or the million-dollar engine bill. It isn’t hard, after putting it all together, painting it, and massaging all the little areas you have to these days, to spend almost $2 million per car. With how hard IndyCar teams are struggling right now, which would you prefer? Two ready Dallara-Hondas for $4 million, or two ready Delta Wings for $1.1 million. As an owner, that’s an easy one to answer.”

The new sheriff seemed to like it

“They lost my luggage in Moline, but I got here despite the storm!,” new IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard shared. He was a surprise Delta Wing launch attendee, and despite his relative inexperience with the struggle for IndyCar’s future, he says the car appealed to his marketing side.

“I was watching everybody in the room just as much as the car. Everybody was really excited to see the innovation and design. I had one person tell me he saw people at the launch that hadn’t covered IndyCar in 30 years. I think it’s a car that looks awesome; if I’m a 12-year-old kid, I dream of driving that car. If I’m a sponsor, it’s the kind of car that brings people to my store or my showroom to take a look at it. From the marketability side, I think it’s fantastic.

“What does that mean for competition and safety? I’ll leave that to the experts. What I’m really excited to see is what the papers and the web have to say. Everybody has an opinion and wants to talk, and the one thing I take back with me from the event is the passion people have for the sport. It’s really fun to see how highly, highly competitive everyone is. That’s something we can work with.”

Parting shots

The Delta Wing isn’t a panacea that is meant to solve all of IndyCar’s ills. It can’t be. No single concept can be perfect; there will always be flaws. (Scratch that. I just thought of Rosario Dawson.)

I don’t see the Delta Wing as Pandora, the dream-like world depicted in Avatar, but the car is clearly the work of a man with a dream, and if nothing else comes from the design, it reminds us that since its inception, IndyCar racing was never about predictability.

IndyCars aren’t supposed to be the same demure, inspiration-less machines they’ve evolved into. Dallara’s 2012 drawings, and I can’t call them anything more than artist’s impressions, range from barely different to what we have now to something 10-year-olds would come up with after drinking too much Mountain Dew.

Swift’s proposed 2012 cars are stunning. They are polished, clean, and innovative, provided you use the current IndyCar as its basis. If you’re a fan of evolution, rather than revolution, the Swift would be hard to beat. Their concepts for adding visible electronic indicators – fuel level, brake usage, and throttle usage – should be mandated, no matter whose cars are used in 2012.

If you believe that IndyCar racing needs to get out of its evolutionary stance, and make a clean break, the Delta Wing is that car. We haven’t seen images of the Lola yet, so it could fall in either category, but what the Delta Wing does differently is propose an important new concept for the League.

I’ll be fine if Delta Wing sacrifices some aero efficiency in order to make the car more appealing. It needs a treatment of some sorts at the front – something. We don’t want fans quoting Wayne’s World every time is goes by, shouting “Schwing” when the member-mobile dives into the Keyhole. From jokes about seeking sponsorship from Viagra to a host of easy puns, the car that is meant to save Indy can’t afford to look like a rolling punch line.

Whether the car as a whole or only parts of it are utilized for 2012, either with a bespoke Delta Wing chassis or if only certain aspects of it are mandated for every constructor to use, I’m a big believer in the concept.

The League hasn’t demonstrated the leadership or the urgency to shape the discussion or the rules for 2012, and have instead chosen to work from Delta Wing’s copybook. I’d be happy to see the Delta Wing group as the official delegate that shepherds the 2012 process – until such time the League demonstrates they have a better concept and the expertise to manage it.

For years the League has asked racing car constructors to fill their void of design knowledge. They solicit designs and approve what they feel best fits their series. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s standard practice almost everywhere. Now that we have a first in IndyCar racing – a paddock capable of providing its own design and its own technical oversight group – maybe it’s time to let the experts provide a service the League isn’t prepared to handle.

Ben Bowlby is just one of many former designers and engineers with backgrounds at Lola, Reynard, Swift, and other IndyCar constructors. As long as the paddock is filled with the men and women who’ve created the very cars they race, their knowledge is what should drive the 2012 design process.

In the sprit of John Cooper and open source technology, I’d challenge Delta Wing’s competitors to scrap their exiting 2012 designs, to go back to their virtual drawing boards, and return with something equally, if not more radical than what was unveiled in Chicago.

If they come up with something more pioneering, put their designs right alongside the Delta Wing. If they come back with more evolution rather than revolution, a re-tailored Delta Wing will be the only car worth considering. Maybe then the silver pill will go down a little bit easier.

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