IndyCar – The Lola Project Revisited

Today, Lola followed their initial press release which revealed their intent to bid for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series chassis contract with a second, more fulsome press release including sketches of their proposed chassis. It must be said that the outward appearance of the chassis is rather uninspired and stale. There’s nothing genuinely new, innovative or modern about the looks of the chassis. Lola does bring some very interesting concepts with their bid that could lower costs, and bridge the equipment gap between the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Firestone Indy Lights. Here are the basics of the Lola bid:

  • One tub design with two aero-matched body styles.
  • Same tubs for both the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Firestone Indy Lights.
  • Elements to minimize the risk of tread-to-tread contact.
  • Underwing designed to minimize wake turbulence.
  • Designed to maximize high-yaw stability and minimize the risk of “take-off”

There are some really neat ideas in there, and let me address those before I get into grading the actual chassis sketches.

Lola understands that the fans want to see different chassis out there competing, but they also understand that whenever you have genuine chassis competition you have definite winners and losers. We need only look back a few seasons to when the Panoz G-Force and the Dallara chassis were both on track. The Dallara was far and away the better chassis, especially on the superspeedways, which is why we now have only Dallara. They beat Panoz, and Panoz elected to withdraw from the series rather than spend more money to redevelop their G-Force platform. Lola proposes to bring a single tub onto which a couple of different body treatments can be applied. Their promise is that the two designs will have identical aerodynamic performance, but as someone who does computational physics I can tell you that its near impossible to achieve that lofty goal. This is no attempt to snub the fine engineers at Lola, but a recognition of how outstandingly tricky modeling fluid dynamics can be. I find it highly unlikely that there won’t be some subtle advantage of one body configuration over the other at various tracks. What this means, is that teams will likely have to invest in both designs in order to be competitive on all of the various types of courses the IndyCar Series will visit over the racing season.

In recognition of the need to reduce costs, and that as a manufacturer, the more chassis one can sell, the less you need to charge for each unit. Lola also recognizes the disparity between the performance characteristics of the current ICS and FIL chassis which creates a steep learning curve for drivers wishing to progress forward. They propose to use the same tub for both series. They would share in common the nosecone, cockpit area, fuel system, and basic chassis elements. They would not share the suspensions, wings, sidepods, or drivetrain. The advertised benefit to a FIL team would be a much cheaper upgrade option to a ICS spec car. The hope is that this would encourage more FIL teams to participate in the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race. Would it? I’m not sure. It might for a couple of teams that would be on the edge. It would certainly allow a team like Sam Schmidt Motorsports to run their own independent effort, and even perhaps a couple of other races throughout the season. I don’t think it would create a flood of FIL teams signing up for the 500, though. Many of the FIL teams are on the very edge of being financially viable as it is. Even with a cheaper cost of competition, participating in the 500 might still be above their means.

The other features that Lola bring with their bid, we can discuss in terms of Raceability and Modern Look of the car, so lets get to it.

Making The Grade

Raceability: A-
Lola brings a feature that many in the community liked in the Swift release, and that’s a design element that seeks to reduce the amount of turbulence created in the wake of a car. Lola wisely just eludes to this feature as a intelligently redesigned underwing, whereas Swift uses the unfortunate, even if it is very descriptive, Mushroom Buster (patent pending). If successful, this element of the design could greatly improve the nose-to-tail performance over that of the current cars.

Central to Lola’s extensive aerodynamic research has been the necessity to guarantee close and exciting racing. Wheel to wheel duels on the variety of circuits that the IZOD Indycar Series races on will become the norm rather than the exception.

Focusing on the rear under-body of the Lola Indycar, designers have found a cost effective and simple breakthrough to ensure that there is a minimum wake for following car. This means that drafting and slipstreaming will be in the drivers own hands rather than that of the aerodynamics itself.

Another issue that the Lola bid addresses is the danger of tread-to-tread contact. Using a full-width front wing, extending the sidepods forward, and deploying a small piece of trim behind the rear wheels should prevent any such contact, making the close wheel-to-wheel racing we all enjoy that much safer for the drivers. These elements, especially the fragile front wing, are prone to snapping off during a contact. The protection offered by these elements will help a bit, but IndyCar drivers certainly won’t be able to “bang doors” as one would see in a typical touring car series.

When contact does occur, or when a driver gets out of shape, the past several chassis variations had an unsettling tendency to swap ends extremely quickly, and to lift off of the race track when the yaw angle was too great. There are multiple frightening examples of this through out the past decade including Dario’s flip at MIS, Mario’s incredible multiple somersaults at IMS, Briscoe’s inferno at Chicago, and Davey Hamilton’s horrific accident at Texas. Lola, in their design, believe they have a car that will exhibit significant stability, even at high yaw angles, and retain track adhesion during those conditions thus minimizing the tendency for the car to become airborne. This is good for the drivers, certainly, but its also good for the fans. We certainly don’t need another Charlotte, or an incident like Carl Edwards front stretch accident at Talladega.

All in all, I think Lola addresses a lot of key concerns regarding the raceability of the current package, and if their claims hold up, we should see a significant improvement in the racing action.

Modern Look: D-
This is where the Lola concepts completely fail from my point of view. Their design is anything but modern, but instead looks exactly like any other open-wheel formula racer out there today. There’s nothing about their design that proclaims it specifically IndyCar. There is no revolutionary statement made by this design. It is merely a very subtle evolution of the current car. In terms of sponsorship visibility, there is an average amount of room, very similar in fact to the current Dallara. I’m very tempted to give the chassis a failing grade of F for this category, but the fact that it is a slight step forward in appearance gives it enough for a barely passing D-.

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