A curious thing happened today in Monaco. Several of the GP2 cars put in faster laps than some of the new F1 teams. F1 is the undisputed pinnacle of modern motorsport with fantastically large budgets, while GP2 is a spec feeder series. As eloquently put by Flavio Briatorre, “There are teams in F1 who are only two seconds quicker compared to GP2 teams and they are spending 60-70 million while GP2 costs three million. Something’s wrong there.” Just imagine Flavio’s next quote after word of this debacle gets out.
GP2 is flat spec with a 612hp Renault engine and a spec Dallara chassis. F1 engines are moderately more powerful these days in the 750hp range but they have much higher torques and rpm’s. Further, the F1 chassis is a constantly changing aerodynamic work of art, all in the name of decreased lap times. Given the massive investments made in F1, it is ludicrous that these GP2 cars are in reach at all.
Let’s not overreact too much though. The quick GP2 time was set at 1:20.476 which is still quite a bit off the pace of Fernando Alonso’s quick times in P1 (1:15.927) and P2 (1:14.904). It speaks to the relative uncompetitiveness of HRT and Virgin that their P1 times were bested by GP2 cars.
But it also is a warning. Is it worth spending the massive sums that F1 teams do on their cars, when their spec feeder series is just 5 seconds off the pace of the Ferrari budget? It would appear that a GP2 chassis with a slightly higher horsepower engine might make a few of the current F1 teams very angry if it did some demonstration laps on F1 weekends.
Efficiency is the New Speed?
Enter the next IndyCar Chassis/Engine combo and Delta Wing. Regardless of what you might think of the Delta Wing concept, it really has opened eyes around the world to what is possible if you throw out accepted conventions and design a car from the ground up, instead of designing it to fit a rulebook. We have had this accepted open wheel car template now for several decades. Much tweaking has taken place as aero design has become more efficient, which has forced these open wheel series’ to add in drag components, grooved tyres, underbody planks and other elements to these cars to slow them down. We are left with oversized engines that sound sweet, but expend most of their HP punching a hole in the air.
I’m not saying that Delta Wing is the answer. I too am not happy with the looks of this concept, but it is asking the right questions. What I am saying is this. If GP2 cars are knocking at the door of F1 lap times, it can’t take too much genius to develop a spec series that can do faster laptimes than F1, which cheapens the massive investment that these teams are making. The era of high drama from monster engines and ever faster laps may be at an end. Though these things still hold much fascination, we do have to consider the safety of the drivers and the spectators. Yes, we can easily allow F1 and IndyCars to go faster, but how much faster. Is 250 at Indy too fast? When we get to 250, what next?
Former FIA president, Max Mosley famously got the ire of all the F1 teams when he trivialized their gargantuan operations as merely tweaking old concepts with endless refinements. His answer to this problem was KERS, budget caps and engine development freezes. Halting engine development and budget capping seems to be just the opposite direction of where F1 needs to go. KERS at least was a new innovation in technology but the FIA was not willing to really make it an open development piece since they capped the allowable power output per lap.
The Road Forward
Much is hanging in the balance now as IndyCar considers its next engine/chassis spec and F1 ponders their 2013 powerplant spec. IndyCar is struggling for relevance in a market that largely is ambivalent or ignorant of their product. F1 though has made tracks toward spec racing and this path could lead them on a long slide to IndyCar style irrelevance.
Speed alone can no longer be the only differentiator, because technology has to be capped or the on track product will become too dangerous. The time has come for efficiency to lead the way into the next era of racing. Delta Wing may not look like much, but it has broken new ground by promising similar laptimes with half the horsepower, half the weight, much cheaper engines, much cheaper chassis and an emphasis on continued development within a set structure.
I have a very strong feeling that the 2013 F1 powerplant spec is going to be radically different than anything we have seen before, with a reported inline 4 cylinder turbo engine, energy recovery throughout the design and limits on the amount of fuel that a team may use for any given event. It would be wise for IndyCar to do something similarly unconventional. Those type of ideas are now being discussed by the ICONIC committee, and if they are seriously given any thought, we may see IndyCar push back their new spec until 2013.