Tuesday, July 13, 2010

IRL can right ship with new chassis

(by John Oreovicz espn.go.com 7-13-10)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Eight years is an eternity in race car design. Having the same generally unpopular car for eight years is an albatross for a racing series.

That's the situation the Izod IndyCar Series is in. The good news is that help is on the way, in the form of a new chassis formula set to be unveiled Wednesday at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The bad news is that the "Indy car of Tomorrow" won't hit the track for almost two years.

That's not to say that the Dallara IC3 that was introduced in 2003 (and served as IndyCar's unofficial spec chassis since 2006) is a bad car. It has produced close, competitive oval racing, adapted well to road racing, and has a better safety record than prior chassis used in the Indy Racing League.

But it was never intended to be a car that would be used for nine years. More importantly, it was a car that no one ever really got excited about -- least of all the large portion of Indy car racing's fan base that remained loyal to CART and Champ Car until the bitter end.

About 10 years ago, Champ Car stalwart Paul Tracy famously dubbed IRL-specification Indy cars "Crapwagons," and the term stuck. At the time, the first two generations of IRL cars made by Dallara and Panoz/G-Force were indeed rude and crude compared to the cars raced in the CART series built by Reynard, Lola, Penske, Swift and Eagle. Cutting costs was one of the original rallying cries of the IRL; its Indy cars were built to a price, and it showed.

Champ Car devolved into a spec formula for its final few years, but its last car (the 2007 Panoz DP01) was much more sophisticated -- and less expensive -- than the Dallara IC3. But when the open-wheel split finally ended in early 2008, the IRL formula -- and therefore the already five-year-old Dallara -- won out over the recently implemented DP01.

The basic car is any racing series' identity, especially in a spec series. For 2012, IndyCar has the opportunity to have its car work in its favor instead of against it, which has pretty much been the case for the last decade or more. By moving production to America and dramatically cutting prices, Dallara is likely to remain involved, but the Italian manufacturer is likely to have competition for the first time since 2005.

Competition between engine and chassis manufacturers (and even tires from 1995-2000) was one of the things that made Indy car racing great during its most successful era in the 1980s and '90s. Having multiple engine manufacturers is more important from a marketing standpoint, but it would be a bonus if IndyCar opened up the field to at least two chassis makers as well. Visual differences between the cars give novice fans a way to tell brands of cars apart and gearheads a point for technical discussion.

IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard seems to understand that competition between engine and chassis manufacturers lifts the entire industry. The question he has to answer is whether in the current economic climate Indy car racing can sustain a market for multiple manufacturers. Bernard's toughest task might be convincing the Hulman-George family to finance the initial run of 2012 chassis so that a full and competitive field can be ensured.

We know from the previously announced 2012 engine regulations that the drivers will be granted their wish for more horsepower. The future engine specs call for turbocharged engines with up to six cylinders and 2.4 liters of displacement, tuned to produce between 550 and 750 horsepower depending on the type of track. The current normally aspirated Honda V-8 kicks out about 650 bhp.

Not surprisingly, championship leader Will Power is leading the call for more power.

"They've got to have 750 horsepower plus," Power said. "That'll make the racing better because it'll be harder to drive and the cars will look more spectacular. More horsepower will also mean the tires will go off, which makes them more spectacular.

"I remember when I was a kid going to the Surfers Paradise [CART] race when they had 900 horsepower and the ground would rumble," he added. "It was unbelievable, and it just looked and sounded fast. They revved to 17,000 rpm. It sounded awesome."

Other top Indy car drivers are hoping for a more agile car with more options for adjustability.

"For me, I think the car needs to be a ton lighter," remarked two-time IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon. "The current car is a bit of a heavy thing. Being a lot lighter will make it a ton safer, too, because you won't hit the wall as hard."

"I'd also like to see a lot of the downforce created by the underwing, like Champ Car did," Dixon added. "That would be nice so you're not relying so much on the wings that are so massive. I think that would be an easy way to make the racing better. It would help us get close and make runs on the other guy. Adjustability is the key. All this specifying of the wing angle I think is just wrong. There needs to be room in the rules for adjustability so different drivers and teams are able to run different strategies."

Three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves was one of several drivers who said that the current package is just about perfect for Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But he'd like to see the rulebook opened up elsewhere.

"I'd like to see the rules not be so tight, with room for a little more flexibility on the part of the teams," Helio said. "I think you should be able to play a little more with the wings like we did in the past. Certainly horsepower is always fun to have, and I'd like to see the push-to-pass have a little more increase in power instead of just 5-10 horsepower."

Bernard occasionally has said that he would like to banish the corporate names "Indy Racing League" and "IRL" due to the negative connotations they carry from the days of the open wheel war. The long-awaited move out of "Crapwagons" and into sexy, technologically advanced new cars should be another step in the right direction for the IndyCar Series.

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