Thursday, October 22, 2009

Is Open Wheel Racing Open Wheel Racing if the Wheels Aren't Open???

An interesting “question” made it into Curt Cavin’s Q&A today. It was more of a “Hey everybody look at this” and Curt obliged by posting the link. It purported to be a sneak peak at one of the two car designs under consideration for 2012. While there is no guarantee that it is, I think there’s enough commentary pointing to some basic facts about the image to suggest that it very well could be. A little more on that later.

I think it would be logical that with any sort of change like a new car spec it is quite possible that there is not only plan A but also plan B. Plan A being evolutionary along the same basic program and Plan B being more of a radical departure. For a series on the brink of obscurity, the radical departure has to be in the consideration set if a simple evolution changes nothing about the current state of affairs.

An image from Racecar-engineering.com that would up on Pressdog’s site back in August shows what could be considered to be an evolutionary design. It comes from one of the design seminars that IndyCar and Honda sponsored during the last off season. It’s reverse wing design is interesting and different, though the champcar hold outs would likely call it ugly because the nose of the car does not point upwards over the front wheels like the F1, GP2, A1GP and ChampCar’s do (did). At the end of the day however there’s no mistaking it as an Indycar.

The image that wound up referenced in Curt’s Q&A is quite a bit different in its wing development. In many ways, the lack of a single point up front and more importantly the closing in of the rear wheels the design could signal the end of Open wheel racing as we know it. The Klingons have arrived and they want to go racing (and they did not bend to ALMS’s request to shower first)






I personally think these images are legit. First because it appears to be an evolution of another one of the designs from the design seminars, an image is below (sorry for the poor quality, I lifted it with a screen shot from the IRL video embedded in the Racecar-engineering.com page, I would have Mrs JP work her photoshop skills here, but she is watching Grey’s anatomy and hell hath no fury…)

Second, and please God forgive me, but quoting Humpy Wheeler “Dem cars need some fenders, so dat people kin pay you money to put stickers on it”. Just take a look at that rear wing. It would do for IndyCar sponsorships what the front hoods do for nascar. Third, once you get the wing treatments off, you see a pretty familiar driver tub and engine compartment nestled under there.

Finally and most compellingly, is the closing in of the rear wheels. Why would IndyCar do this? Let’s talk a little about one of the minor controversies of the series now completed.

Lost in the Robin Miller inspired, post Chicago hub bub about cars racing too close and that being dangerous was what “dangerous” meant exactly. The pack racing enthusiasts waxed on about drivers knowing the risks they are taking and that’s part of the their jobs as if the worst thing that could ever happen at a race is that a driver might perish in the event. As awful as that might be, it is not the worst thing that could go wrong at a race. The IRL got a good lesson in that a few years ago at Charlotte when a wheel got loose from a car and made its way into the stands to dole out an instant demise to an innocent spectator.

The worst case scenario of course is LeMans 1955. As exciting as it might be to watch Dario doing back flips in Versus promo spots, the spectre of a racing car catching some big air is a sight of terror for anyone associated with a track or series. Dead customers quickly translates into a dead track or league.

Have modern IndyCars ever come close to putting one in the stands? Well, if you have ever really looked closely at Briscoe’s accident at Chicagoland, thought about where the car hit the fence, noted that it took off from the middle of the track and then try to imagine what the trajectory may have been should it have launched from closer to the apron, things get a little scary. The culprit here, aside from drivers getting together in the first place, is the risk of front and back wheels of an OWR car getting together. The Racecar engineering page quotes Les Mactaggart, The Indy Racing League's senior technical director:

'The clever part - and we are working on some ideas - will be how to prevent front-to-rear wheel contact. It may be nothing more complex than a flexible blade that comes off the rear energy structure, something about six inches wide that sits behind the rear wheel. As another car's front tyres push into the blade so this is pushed against the rear wheel, preventing physical contact between the two and the resultant doubling in acceleration. We need to look at ways of preventing the two wheels from touching.'

Closing in the back wheels on new car design accomplishes that exact goal. The thinking would be that a safer design will allow fans to watch the kind of racing that we saw at Kentucky and Chicagoland this year while still allowing league and track officials a little more piece of mind that the big one won’t happen on their watch.

I have stated that I think this image is legit and one step further, it wouldn’t surprise me if it were a designed leak. If IndyCar did traditional research to gauge reaction to such a radical idea, they would need to do the concept test with racing fans, who of course gossip like little children (I know we can’t help it, it’s the F1 in our blood – Pressdog made the astute observation that of the 1,070 IndyCar fans in the world, 40% have blogs and the rest leave comments on them). With the risk being that if in the end, the league chose to go conservative, all hell would break loose when Dallara 3.0 was rolled out and expectations came raining down from the heavens. In this digital age companies (notably three letter networks considering potentially controversial story lines in their primetime programming) test ideas via planted leaks, and then use the bulletin board and blog scraping software they own to get a read on how the “thought leaders” reacted and what kind of “buzz” it was creating in the comment postings.

So what does JP think? I think the league needs to make a splash here. Something that will get the rest of the racing world to take notice. If the series is to remain spec, the spec needs to push the envelope for the rest of the racing world. But does closing in the rear wheels accomplish that? Does front wing styling reminiscent of a Romulan battle cruiser belong in racing?

Is an open wheel series and open wheel series if the some of the wheels are closed? What will be the reaction? Will it enchant or enrage? Will it pit purist vs progressive or will it be hailed a modern marvel by all? Well that’s the gamble, the risk of pushing the spec towards revolution. Could the league evolve in the short term, with a lower priced vehicle until the grass is greener and then take the plunge another 3 years down the road? It could have – perhaps three years ago, but having kept the same spec for so long has ruined IndyCar’s reputation among racing fans who find the technology as interesting as the competition.

To borrow from another sport where projectiles hurtling towards the fan base is a good thing, It’s the ninth inning, and I think the league needs to step to the plate, point to the deep seats and swing hard.

4 comments:

  1. JP
    Great post. I agree, the IRL needs to go big or go home when it comes to the chassis re-design. Another versiob of Dallara 3.0 won't cut it. The next design is going to have to take us to 2020, so it better be revolutionary. (In my opinion both of the above designs would fit into that revolutionary category)

    I have some doubts that these are the actual designs being considered though. And if it was a planned leak to gauge reaction, they sure buried it awful deep.

    As for the fenders-non fenders, I think there are creative ways (like described in your post) to maintain the look of the Open Wheel race while still protecting against the wheel-wheel contact that launches the cars like an F-14 Tomcat taking flight from a Carrier.

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  2. I agree that releasing the image was a trial balloon. Its no coincidence that it wound up on Curt Cavin's blog, which is probably every IndyCar fan's first stop for info. I think that they need to go with a radical new design - more that one if possible. Coming out with essentially the same car in 2012 could be the end.

    Regarding whether a car could fly into the stands 1955 LeMans style - remember when Mario Andretti took his flips through the short chute at Indy in 2003? Check out the video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMeE9NAh60I). If he hits that debris in the turn rather than in the short chute, that car ends up in the stands for sure. If that happened during the race, how many spectators would die? I'm sure that there are IMS officials that still don't sleep at night thinking about that.

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  3. While I see your point about the leaks, I think we are still not sure what is coming down the pipe yet. There are a bunch of potential cars out there... to add some fuel to the speculation fire, here is another...
    http://www.thedesignblog.org/entry/honda-indycar-green-beast-to-scorch-the-track-in-2011/

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  4. First of all, nice blog.

    Second of all, the first image you had up there. I'm a Champcar guy, and if that were to be the next Indycar, I'd be very pleased (as long as there would be a couple chassis manufacturers).

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