Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Test pilot

(by Dave Lewandowski 10-17-11)

Three weeks ago, on a bright but chilly morning at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Dan Wheldon was in his usual jovial mood. Coffee cup in hand, he chatted up Firestone Racing and Bryan Herta Autosport personnel about car balance, tire grip and even vacation time.

Any time at the hall of motorsports innovation was a grand time for the two-time Indianapolis 500 champion, and this day was special as the seven-week validation program for the Dallara Automobili chassis that will be employed in the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series was coming to a close.

Wheldon was the test driver, selected by INDYCAR and Dallara along with Bryan Herta Autosport to prepare the car for tedious but tenacious testing on a variety of racetracks. In one respect, Wheldon was the test pilot – not unlike Chuck Yeager, but at much slower speeds. He’d follow the plan, wait dutifully for alterations and then provide feedback that the myriad of telemetry data points couldn’t relay.

“He gave it 100 percent as he always did everything,” said INDYCAR vice president of technology Will Phillips, who oversaw the program in conjunction with Dallara engineers. “You couldn’t ask for a more willing or better participant.

“His input was just fantastic; it was all about making a better product and a safer car for the drivers and a better show for the fans. It’s very difficult not having his continued presence to carry it through. But it would be doing him a disservice if we didn’t continue to push the safety. He’ll be sorely missed.”

The 2012 car, which was designed with cockpit safety enhancements and body styling to reduce the incidence of wheel-to-wheel contact, will replace the chassis that has been in use since 2003. After wind tunnel and crash testing, the car debuted in early August at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course with Wheldon behind the wheel.

The validation program was successful, Phillips said, in that it demonstrated the attributes sought on road courses and ovals. It also unearthed minor issues that Dallara is rectifying for the production cars due to teams in mid-December. Wheldon was bullish on the car, citing its maneuverability, improved sightlines and generous padding in the cockpit.

He especially liked the sound of the turbocharged engine that will be employed for 2012 from Honda, Chevrolet and Lotus. Manufacturer development of the V-6, direct-injection engines fueled by E85 began on Oct. 4, and the next scheduled test is Oct. 26-27 at Sebring International. Honda and Chevrolet cars took demonstration laps at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Oct. 15.

Wheldon was the test driver for Honda’s V-8 IndyCar engine almost a decade ago.

Flags flew at half-staff at Dallara Automobili headquarters in Parma, Italy, on Oct. 17.

“Dan lives in the memory of everybody at Dallara,” company president and founder Gianpaolo Dallara said. “He has been a true champion; not only because of his many victories, but and above everything else, because he has been a true and warm man to all the people he encountered.

“All people at Dallara always enjoyed meeting him in Italy and in the USA. We will honor his memory for the years to come by dedicating the Dallara IndyCar 2012 in his name. He deserves that.”

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