Throughout the past several years in IndyCar racing, the fuel knob has been a contentious point for fans, teams, drivers, and league officials. The cars had been run without the luxury of a fuel mixture knob until 2008, when it was reinstated. That lasted two years until in 2010 the league removed the knob in favour of a system where the cars could run full-rich, or leaned down for yellow-flag conditions. This ultimately put the job of fuel conservation into the hands (and feet) of the drivers. Those of us who are not fans of the knob, or of driver aids in general, thought that was the end of it. Turns out we were wrong. In an article by Marshall Pruett on SpeedTV.com, Technical Director for the IZOD IndyCar Series Tony Cotman gave some insight to the developing 2012 technical regulations.
no images were found“In simple terms, there will be zero [electronic driver aids]. There’s a good argument that things like traction control are relevant to road cars, but it doesn’t improve racing. This is an area we will hold our ground on. We want to have bad-fast cars that not everybody can jump in and drive, and you have to protect that by keeping driver aids out. You’ll see a return of a fuel-mixture knob, but that’s about it. And that only helps fuel mileage, not driving the car. Other than that, they can adjust sway bars and weight-jackers—what they can do now. That’s it.” — Tony Cotman in an interview with SpeedTV.
This statement seemed incongruous to us at OpenPaddock, and it was an issue that I raised on Blogger Night on Trackside with Curt Cavin and Kevin Lee on 1070 The Fan. (If you’re not already listening to their show religiously, then you SHOULD! Go there now and subscribe. …I’ll wait.) Unfortunately, neither Curt nor Kevin had any explanations regarding the subject, although I am grateful for their following up on the question in latter weeks with guests. Apparently, we had to just sit and wait for Mr. Cotman to explain his reasoning, an explanation that was promised as soon as questions about the above statement surfaced. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Cotman, and I really appreciate the fact that he didn’t want to give too short or incomplete of an answer in 140 characters or less. I was happy to wait. As promised, he released a full description of his thoughts on the fuel mixture knob issue in his most recent article at Racer Magazine, Demystifying fuel mixture strategies. In his article, he makes the very valid argument that fuel strategy is and will always be part of motorsports. He also lays out his reasons on why the fuel knob is not so much a driver aid as it is a performance tool to be used by the team strategist. The following paragraph from his article really summarizes his arguments for the fuel knob well:
Generally, each individual team controls most aspects of racing and that’s how it should be. Fuel mileage is merely one of those aspects, and IndyCar’s job is to provide a set quantity of fuel to be used during any given race. Teams may utilize fuel as they wish, just as they do with tires or downforce levels. Tire pressure adjustments or downforce changes are tools teams can use throughout a race. You need to use all options to the best of your ability to beat the competition. So, naturally, many races have been won and will continue to be won by teams and drivers outsmarting the competition by doing a better job of saving fuel in some way. — Tony Cotman, Demystifying fuel mixture strategies.
It is here that I disagree with Mr. Cotman. The fuel knob is fundamentally different than tire pressures or downforce settings in that how a driver sends input to the car can alter fuel consumption rates, but there’s nothing a driver can do to alter tire pressures or wing angles from the cockpit. (Ok, in F1 perhaps, but this is IndyCar). A skilled and talented driver can save just as much fuel by careful manipulation of the cars inputs than they can via an electronic remapping of the fuel mixture. All the knob permits is an easier path toward fuel conservation. There’s been floated the argument that with the fuel knob, you won’t have people lifting and slowing down to conserve fuel, they can still go flat-out, and that there will be less of a chance of a car running out of fuel. Both arguments fail to hold water, as I see it. Whether you’re moderating your fuel consumption with a mixture knob, or with careful driving, you will be lapping slower than the cars running at full steam. There will always be a differential in speed regardless of the conservation method. As for running out of fuel, resulting in an incident such as we saw on the final lap of this year’s Indianapolis 500 Mile Race, again I see no difference. Teams will take risks when it comes to fuel strategies. Sometimes they will work out and you score the win, sometimes you find yourself slowing on the backstretch and out of gas. The knob will not change this.
In short, the knob is a crutch. Those who have the knowledge and skill to drive smooth and save fuel should be allowed to exploit that advantage over drivers who aren’t capable of the finesse required. While I appreciate Tony Cotman’s explanation as to why the knob will return in 2012, I still see it as a driver aid and a device that makes racing these cars easier, not harder, and so I leave you with this battle cry:
Mr. Cotman! Tear out this knob!