Since the last weekend in April, the IndyCar series has been oval racing but the excitement of high-speed side-by-side racing has certainly been lacking. At the end of the Kansas Race, I wrote a short editorial, What Happened to Competitive Racing, where I went on a little rant about the new wheelbase rules further limiting the freedom of the engineers and reducing the drivability and competitiveness of the cars. It was pointed out at the time that the extreme weather might have been the primary factor for the lack-luster racing rather than the new regulatory environment. Ok, I could see that and was convinced to hold off until after the spring swing through the ovals of Kansas, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, Texas, Iowa, and Richmond. Well, the only race left of those is the Richmond race coming up this weekend, but I think there’s enough data now to pass judgment on the current chassis and engine specs. Brian Barnhart made the decision to change the rules with the intention of bringing the cars closer, and keeping the operating costs down. Although he had the best of intentions, the consequences have been dire. Operating budgets have not decreased, and the ability of the cars to battle one another have suffered significantly.
The changes made for this year include some minor and one major change. The minor change was to demand no change. All aerodynamic development for the 2009 cars is forbidden. Any wings or other fixtures that are attached to the chassis must have been previously approved and raced in prior seasons. The major change was a move to fixed wheelbases for every team at every track: 122″, no more, no less. In previous years, the wheelbase was allowed to be either 122, 120, or 118″. These changes coupled with the continued detuning of the Honda engine downward to around 625 hp have not helped the smaller teams run up front with the better funded teams, it has simply made it more difficult for drivers to get around one another.
The freezing of the aerodynamic regulations is not so much of a big deal except that the places where aero has the largest effect, the wings, which are not allowed to deviate at all. The league mandates the flap angles and wicker sizes that will be used by all teams. This means that outside of modifying the front wing angles slightly, there’s very little aero tuning that a race engineer and driver can do to the car. We all know and understand that different drivers have different styles and techniques for getting their machines around a speedway, therefore each driver will also have different requirements of their car to be optimally fast. A completely fixed aerodynamic package inhibits this greatly.
The fixed wheelbase rule was put in place to both save costs and to get the teams closer on the track. Kevin Blanch, Technical Director for the IndyCar Series, put it this way:
“Because (the wheelbase is) longer, the cars won’t be as sensitive in traffic as a short car,” Blanch said. “The shorter the car is like driving a Volkswagen compared to a limousine. It should make it easier on the tech side to check things and check relationships to the wheels and wings, too.
That’s right. A limousine. Quite frankly, I’ll take the VW, thank you very much. Actually, the 122″ wheelbase has produced more drag for a engine that has already been tuned back from its original specs, and it creates a car that is more prone to understeer that turns snappishly into oversteer in the blink of an eye. Just ask Ryan Hunter-Reay about that as he experienced a serious Turn 4 incident at Indianapolis this year, or any number of people after the Texas and Iowa races, most notably EJ Viso who has yet to finish a race! The notion that the 122″ wheelbase will reduce costs is also bogus as most teams already have all of the suspension pieces for the the 120 and 118″ configurations. For those teams that don’t, a set of front suspension components costs in the neighborhood of $10k each. So if you figure 3 sets for 122, 120, and 118, that’s a total of $90k. Running just the 122s, a team would likely need to budget for 5 sets for a total of $50k and a savings of a whopping $40k per season! For small teams that are running on budgets of around $4M, the $40k saving represents a mere 1% of their total operating budget. Not really the savings salvation that was advertised.
The racing product on the ovals at the moment is bad enough that the race promoters and media pundits are beginning to talk about the issue, and the league is beginning to listen! Curt Cavin of the Indianapolis Star reported on Saturday, before the Iowa race, that the League was wanting to open up the regulations a bit before the next 1.5-mile oval race at Kentucky on August 1st in hopes of improving the competition.
“Any time you give people choices, some are going to choose correctly and some are going to choose incorrectly,” Barnhart said. “Then you’ll have a situation of, as I often call them, comers and goers.
“Good cars become bad cars and bad cars become good cars as the fuel burns and the tires wear out. That’s the situation we need to create.”
Not a bad start, if you ask me. As I mentioned in my earlier article on this subject, allowing engineers to adapt a car to their driver’s strengths will result in competitors having similar lap times, but be faster at different parts of the track. All of this leads to exciting strategy and driving battles as the drivers try to assess their opponents in efforts to either defend or overtake. However, on Sunday, Mr. Cavin also published an article stating that Barnhart was also considering allowing the Honda V8 to output closer to its full potential via a Push2Pass style of device. We’ve seen this type of device used before, however. In CCWS and with the KERS system in F1, the device really became more of a Push2NotBePassed button. (Thank you Todd and Grace for coining that term.) In the end, you have both drivers mashing the Go-Fast button and there’s still no passing. I would favor an overall increase in the engine output, but not via a P2P device.
The upside to all of this is that the fans and engineers may finally get what we’ve been wanting for some time, a measure of variation amongst the cars, demonstrations of engineering prowess, and best of all the return of competitive, side-by-side oval racing at 220+ mph! Very often, you’ll find me on the Bash-Barnhart-Bandwagon, but in this case, I have to give him props for recognizing that there is a problem with the current regulatory environment and on-track product, and then having the courage to consider a roll-back of the restrictions that have handcuffed the drivers, engineers and mechanics. If you ask me, this is a step in the right direction, and I’m very excited about how the Kentucky race will turn out. Hopefully, we will see some great high-speed battles.