IndyCar made some seemingly dubious news on Thursday, announcing that the proposed formula upgrade for the IndyLights series was to be delayed until after the originally determined 2014 timeline. This was met with typical angst and frustration by those deep enough into the sport to know that it even had a feeder series. My initial thought was “that’s too bad”, and that “they couldn’t find anyone willing to step in as a sponsor to bankroll it”. Others proclaimed another glaring “Lack of vision and foresight” by IndyCar or that “Lights will never grow or attract sponsors with the same lousy machinery”
Instead of jumping to immediate fits of anger, on occasion, I try to wait for the proverbial “Rest of the Story”. A delay in selection of a new IndyLights spec could mean a number of things, some of them what we have come to cynically expect from IndyCar. Owners went to the series and said “We can’t afford this”. We’ve heard plenty of this recently. IndyCar’s counter to that might be “But we have a new engine and tire sponsor lined up to ameliorate the costs”. Unless of course they have neither, in which case, why would they launch a new car, unless they were looking to chase teams away?
It could be that the Lights car could have been delayed because the story from IndyCar was “We are taking a strategic look at ALL parts of the Road to Indy Program and how they work with each other and the parent series”. While I have no indication this is the situation, I would be very patient with and encouraged by IndyCar if that was in fact the reason.
The Road to Indy Program was a cobbling together of disparate junior elements into a clearly defined stepping stone pathway to the IndyCar series. This effort was needed, visionary and noble. But remember, these “Steps” were developed in isolation of each other, before they were linked together for a common purpose. Now that a common purpose has been established, any re-engineering of the elements (or even the continued existence of any single piece) needs to place “Serving the Common Purpose” above all other historical considerations.
From what I see now, each and every step needs work. Specifically I simply see the bottom end of a development series formulated for road course racing (that denies the existence of ovals), married to a an upper level development series that was never meant to turn right, with both feeding into a final series that mixes genres. Bluntly – the shadow of the split still casts a long shadow over the developmental program.
Starting from the top, an airing of grievances about all levels of the RTI goes like this:
· Lights cars were meant for Ovals, are too heavy, with insufficient brakes and they source downforce in way inconsistent with the current IndyCar formula.
· A year in Lights costs too much money, it is cheaper to stay in Mazda Pro until a driver wins the scholarship instead of progressing when the development curve suggests the driver is ready.
· The lights cars, introduced in 2002 are too damn old.
· Other than being defunct, the Formula Atlantic cars scattered in random garages are road course only machines needing an overhaul to be appropriate on ovals.
· Like FA, Star Mazda was developed for road racing and is entirely inappropriate for big oval racing.
· The price gap between mazda and lights, causes drivers to stagnate in Mazda for too long creating an overly deep field into which young talent gets lost relative to experienced talent. Think of it this way, the big kids who know the cars and the courses don’t go away up and wind up beating up on the little kids who make their debuts, stifling their opportunity to develop.
· Star Mazda cars are nearly as old (2004) and inappropriate looking as the lights cars, just in a different way.
· Despite differentiation in the formula, star mazda cars don’t outperform USF2000 cars by the margins you would expect on certain circuits.
“Strategic thinking” needed for Growth and Sustainability of the MRTI may not be simply buying a new car for Lights, even if the platform chosen does prove to be a better prep for the DW12 than the current car. (Frankly who’s to say the DW 12 will have more than a year or two more life in it when a new lights car came out anyway – I got black helicopter theories here man…). Strategic thinking for the MRTI may mean a rethinking of the parts to serve the larger good. Some questions worth asking (I am sure there are many more):
· How many Tire and Engine manufacturers can you reasonably expect to attract and participate in the program? Enough to support 2 levels? 3 Levels?
· Are the financial commitments to jump series as evenly distributed as are the necessary skills in race craft?
· Do you have financially unattainable levels in your ladder?
· Do you set a limit on the number of years a driver participates in each level?
· If F1 aspirants can Jump from FR3.5 directly to F1, then do you need a 450 Hp Lights car?
· When and what types of tracks should enter the MRTI and in which series?
· DO you need to engage young race aspirants at an earlier age than you do now?
An option I discussed with @xorpheous and @teamcanada1 on Twitter Thursday (and mentioned by Marshall Pruett in his piece) pondered the removal of both aging spec formulas for Mazda Pro and Indy Lights, replacing the two with a new spec series that straddled the two in performance, but which trended towards Mazda in price to participate. That new spec series would be retained by Current Pro Mazda owner Gary Anderson who would pay a franchising fee back to IndyCar which would serve as the sanctioning body. IndyCar would divest itself of any direct management in a development series, allowing it to focus solely on building the IndyCar series. In a couple years, USF2000 would receive an update to its formula that split the current formula with the current spec of Star Mazda.
In many ways this 2 level program would be VERY similar to the Formula Renault F2.0 and F3.5 series that has proven to be a cost effective alternative to the GP3 and GP2 series development ladder in Europe. If this was done correctly, the possibility exists that these two programs could be used outside North America as well. League franchises (the 2000 series first to market) could be sold to parties in South America as well, broadening the base.
IMO Efficiency of cost management and of driver development should be the goal of the MRTI. A visionary approach extends beyond simply the acquisition of new toys and needs to reconsider the placement of all the pieces in the program.
It sure seems like there was more I was going to say here. But hell I cant remember a damn thing these days, so If it comes to me, look for an update. Also - I am not meaning to rip on the MRTI - just looking for ways to make it better going forward.