OpEd – How important are aesthetics anyway?

Discussion of the DeltaWing concept has arisen once again, and also once again at the instigation of Gordon Kirby who wrote an article Rediscovering racing’s true self, and Peter De Lorenzo via his article IndyCar’s death warrant. In these articles, Kirby and De Lorenzo dote on the DeltaWing and its superior engineering concepts. When one talks with a typical race fan about the DeltaWing, however, what one hears most often is something along the lines of, “It’s a brilliant engineering exercise, but …well… it’s ugly isn’t it.” Is the look of a race car REALLY that important of an issue that it can destroy an otherwise ideally engineered machine? Well, maybe. There is a reason why engineers aren’t the only people involved in making can openers. Designers play a role, too. Apparently, its not enough that the can opener simply open cans effectively and reliably, but they must also appeal to our sense of aesthetics as well. They must, after all, look sexy. Don’t believe me? Take a walk down the kitchen gadget aisle next time you’re at the store and look at the designs. All smooth curves and soft grips, ergonomic shapes and what not. Now lets translate this to motorsports. Is it simply enough that the car goes fast, faster than its competition, and is more efficient in doing so? The engineer part of me says, “Well of course. That’s the whole point of the sport, afterall, be first and better yet if you can do so with less expense.” The artist/marketer part of me thinks, “But isn’t not just about going fast, is it? Its the pageantry, the spectacle. Its about the SHOW.”

When people argue for the DeltaWing, they talk about how brilliant the engineering concepts are behind the car, and they’d get no argument from me. Furthermore, when you bring up the argument that its has all the sexiness of a lawn dart, you’ll often hear about how revolutionary cars of the past were thought odd and unlikely to work. Most notably, you’ll hear of the transition from the front-engine roadsters to the rear-engine cars we know today. However, the first rear-engine car to which the DeltaWing supporters refer in their arguments is the Ford-powered Lotus 38 driven by Jimmy Clark. The big difference here is that the Lotus was, …well… a Lotus. It was beautiful! Not only was it fast, but it was a dead sexy car, sleek, low, and appealing. In fact, if you think back to some of the great race cars of the past, we don’t just remember them for their dominance. We remember them because they were beautiful machines. The Ford GT40 was simply magnificent as was the Porsche 917. Magnificent machines that were inspiring and fearsome all at once, a predatory elegance.

Surely form must follow function, but function can’t be everything. Think what you want about how motorsports should be about getting across the finish line first, but never forget that its also about the show. This is where I think the DeltaWing fails, or at least where it failed to win over the IndyCar community. There’s no show, its all function. The only way it remotely approaches being “sexy” is in the inherent phallicity of its shape. A resemblance that has led many twitterites to use some rather interesting nicknames for the car. The DeltaWing group did make sure to state repeatedly and with some vehemence at Indy this year that the grey beast we know now is not necessarily the shape of the final prototype that will hit the track. That being the case, I’m not yet going to completely disregard the DeltaWing, nor will I support it fully. I will wait to see what they put on track late next year. I just hope they don’t completely focus on function and don’t forget that they also need to sell the spectacle.

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6 Thoughts to “OpEd – How important are aesthetics anyway?

  1. I agree with what you said about beautiful racecars…but the reliance, and modern understanding, of aerodynamics has changed the game in a fundamental way. The laws of fluid dynamics are fixed. The methods used to exploit those rules are fixed, or limited, by the regulations in every racing series.

    Restrictive rule making, and costs are the limiting factors in most series today.

    I read an interersting comment today re GP cars. None of the teams have identified the designers of the F-duct or the double diffuser because if they did, other teams would throw money at them and try to hire them for there innovative thinking.

    Adrian Newey is the anomaly, but he is the only “acknowledged” solo designer who now makes a difference.

    I like the Delta wing concept, it is different and allows teams to play with the concept.

    Restrictive rules are the biggest problem that faces most series today. The money can be found, or at least the teams will spend what they can find to work to the rules. But the governing bodies should free up the rules to allow the teams to go where they want.

    I guarantee you would see some interesting cars if the rules were less restrictive.

  2. I guarantee you would see some interesting cars if the rules were less restrictive.

    You’ll get no argument from me, there. The fact that you would get some interesting cars would help the show, if you ask me. Also, a car can be fast, efficient, while at the same time being beautiful. Since you mentioned Mr. Newey, just look at his cars. They’re gorgeous, given the very small box the FIA has given him to work in. Imagine the type of car he could make if he had no restrictions!

  3. Kirby and his ilk are getting a little annoying as they play mouthpiece to the Delta Wing groups ideas. As of yet, they are just that, an idea. I like the idea. I was a proponent of the idea, but the only way the IndyCar series could adopt that idea is if Delta Wing had a model tested and ready to go by the time the chassis decision was made. Yes, they could have waited another year in the hope that DW would be ready, tested and vetted, but the fanbase would have gone nuts if they deferred to 2013 for the adult novelty toy car.

  4. Alan Turner

    Adrian Newey is a genius but to say that any modern F1 car is gorgeous has got to be the biggest work of self delusion I have ever heard. And prior to last years rules with all of the add ons, ducts, winglets and force generators or what ever description you want to use for the ridiculous looking spikes and other crap that F1 cars sprouted provided for the ugliest racing cars this side of Mickey Thompson’s side car.

    Anything on the 08′ F1 grid is beautiful only in the same way a stegasoraus is pretty. Which is to say that they weren’t. And frankly, the ’10 grid is only better because it doesn’t have all of the aforementioned crap stuck all over them. An F1 car is beautiful the same way a shark is. Which is to say it’s not except for the knowledge of what it’s capable of. Prior to ’09 that same shark had goiters all over it.

    Probably the most retarded looking design currently out there is the Renault. They have succeeded in bringing back the term bulbous as the single most apt word for a race cars description since the ’85 March. If I am to stick with the sea creature analogy for the current Renault and the ’85 March I think I would pick “sperm whale”.

    And while I’m at it, most people seemed to be attracted to the Swift concepts put forward. But, again, I’m not a big fan of this piece and that piece stuck here and there. I felt the Swift was exciting the same way a transformer is exciting. I kept thinking it will be interesting to see what it turns into.

    I know allot of people liked the mid ’90’s Reynards. And they were pretty awesome cars. As were their competition during that time but for me I kept thinking that from the cockpit back the car was stunning but the nose kept reminding me of that girl that everybody see and thinks to themselves “you know a little time at a plastic surgeon for some rhinoplasty and she would be the hottest thing ever.

    I know the DW is akward looking especially for those with little to no understanding of suspension geometry and vehicle dynamics but I find a very subtle beauty in it because of it’s smooth shape that doesn’t require allot of appendages stuck all over it to produce what promises to be a highly effective design. I have found reading peoples comments about the DW has been useful for me to help eliminate those with whom I can or can not have an actual discussion with about race car design. Those spouting off about how the car would never work because it couldn’t turn or the turning radius would be too large or it might work on an oval but never on a road course I know I can dismiss out of hand because they have shown that they lack any actual understanding about things like roll center, weight transfer, suspension geometry or even middle school geometry problems that cover things like surface area and pressure.

    It is probably for those reasons the DW will never capture the imagination of the public. Most are too ignorant to understand why it’s so ingenious.

  5. Alan, if it were purely a question about effective engineering, then there would be no problems with the Delta Wing. However, the dynamics change significantly when you’re talking about selling what is for all intents and purposes a spec series to the general public. If this car had emerged in the open environment that existed in the 60s and early 70s, then it would have been welcomed as a competitor. In the current climate, however, appearances will matter. Its unfortunate that pure engineering prowess isn’t allowed to rule the day, but the way the business of motorsports is now, I don’t think function alone will work.

    Whereas I still have concerns about the car being underpowered with a 300hp GRE, I don’t doubt for a minute that it will be nimble. I’m actually looking forward to seeing what the on-track product looks like when the group gets a prototype on track in the next couple of years, but I do think that IndyCar made the right decision in not choosing it as the sole platform for the 2012 car. The ideal solution from every standpoint except for the short-term costs would be to re-open the regulations and allow teams and manufacturers to bring whatever open-wheel design they like. Unfortunately, we all knew from the beginning that this was going to remain a single-chassis series, and because of that, the Delta Wing was out of contention.

  6. Alan Turner

    Doug, You are absolutely correct. I think what I was trying to point out was that aesthetics are important mostly by what we are conditioned to expect. I’ve heard comments along the lines of “that’s not an Indy car” when describing the DW. Well what the hell is an Indy Car and what is it supposed to look like? People hate the current car but it looks as much like any thing called an Indy Car in the last 40yrs. For me the problem is just that. For the last 40yrs we have come to expect that what an Indy car looks like includes rear engine,GEffects, Wings and 4 large out placed wheels. Probably one of the biggest issues concerning aesthetics for the average fan with the IRL versions is probably the air inlet. For 25 of the last 40yrs Indy Cars didn’t have a N/A air inlet. We are too comfortable with a certain look yet there are so many posers out there that claim to be for tech innovation and claim to derive their concept of beauty in form following function. The same people swoon over F1 cars but hate the DW.

    I too think have some doubts about 300hp being enough. But, hp is a relative thing. Have you driven a shifter kart or TaG lately?

    I think that the decision by the ICONIC committee is probably the wisest decision taken by anyone in a position to make such decisions concerning Indy Car racing in the last 15yrs. We may end up with another spec Dallara and if the economy continues to suck then that is probably the best thing. If the world financial climate improves, then there is latitude for the rules to be relaxed and more of the car to be open for development.

    And hey, if CG has the money and interest to continue to explore the DW then maybe we can revisit the idea a year or two down the road.

    All in all I like where things are at considering the limitations of the economy and relative to where we were just a couple of years ago.

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