The early hours of January 16 and the historic road course at Sebring, largely associated with sportscar racing, is the venue for the dawn of another era in the on-going recovery of the Indycar series. For Indycar, an event of this kind is greeted with little fan-fare by US sports standards, only a few weeks later, Danica Patrick will make her first appearance to a live televised broadcast of the opening NASCAR Sprint Cup test session in Daytona. Popularity alone is not the only reason for the lack of attention in Sebring as the series recovers from the horrific crash at the season final in Las Vegas which claimed the life of two-time Indy 500 Champion and 2005 Indycar Champion Dan Wheldon, but also comes to grips with the new Dallara Chassis, codenamed DW12 in honour of Wheldon. To understand the challenges that Indycars face and to assess the effectiveness of the changes to the up-coming season it’s important to take a look back at the sports tumultuous history.
It isn’t long ago that Indycar could boast as having the most entertaining form of motor sport in the world. Sadly this was achieved after the infamous split between Tony George, the head of the Indiannapolis Motor Speedway and the various parties representing the Championship Auto Racing Teams or CART. While this fracture, born out of an ideological belief in what American open-wheel racing should represent but inherently grounded in what it was worth, came to fruition in 1996, the series would achieve true greatness in the years that followed.
Fortunately for Indycar, the presence of the past is not too far away. You need only type ‘Indycar 1995’ in Youtube and every race of the final season prior to the split has been uploaded. I must confess that despite knowing the champion and the winner of a few races that year, I found myself watching all the races. What becomes clear when watching the old races is that while the subsequent split can be attributed to the relative lack of popularity of the Indycar series, there are many features absent from the current series that once made it so entertaining.
In his monthly article in Motor Sport magazine, Nigel Roebuck recounted an interview he had with Jacques Villeneuve in 1995 following his first test of the Williams FW15 and how the Formula 1 car differed from his Cosworth powered Reynard Indycar. Villeneuve’s response is telling, while the F1 car was lighter and quicker through the corners, it did not match the primitive ferocity of the Indycar with its 900bhp engine, greater weight and far less effective steel brakes. In describing the handling characteristics, Villeneuve was impressed by the directional agility of the Formula 1 car saying that when you lose control of the Indycar it is very hard to catch. It is these characteristics that existed in the Indycar of the late 90s and early 00s which generated such entertaining racing, not because there was more crashes but that the difficulty controlling the cars resulted in greater errors, and more overtaking. In addition to the characteristics of the car itself, variety both in and out of the car was a hallmark of the series. Two tyre manufacturers, three engine suppliers and three chassis suppliers driven by young up and coming stars like Gil De Ferran, Robbie Gordon, Adrian Fernandez and Paul Tracy alongside experienced former world champions Emerson Fittipaldi, Mario Andretti and Nigel Mansell.
Since the unification of the Indycar series at the beginning of 2008 the sport has adopted the equipment of the Indy Racing League whose format largely resembles the ethos of NASCAR in that every car uses the same chassis and is powered by the same engine. Ironically however, the very formula that has seen NASCAR obtain immense popularity within the United States, is perhaps the very reason why Indycar racing is a shadow of its former glory. The cars, now powered by normally aspirated engines, are far less powerful and have far better aerodynamics than their counter-parts from the CART series. By lowering the speeds and increasing the mechanical grip, the cars were able to tackle even the most challenging of ovals with relative ease. Drivers in last years series have spoken of the ability to drive flat out for an entire lap on some of the ovals, thereby enabling multiple racing lines to be taken around the banked curves. While this may appear to generate exciting racing, the importance of drafting has become crucial as even the most in-experienced drivers rarely make mistakes. This may go towards explaining why, in the past six years of the Indycar Series and the Indy Racing League, there has been numerous horrific accidents, most notably incurred by Ryan Briscoe, Dario Franchitti and Kenny Brack, where a car behind remains behind a car for too long before pulling out from the slipstream, only to clip the rear wheel of the car forcing it to take flight and usually making contact with the catch fencing. It would however, be a mistake to attribute this form of accident to that which took the life of Dan Wheldon in Las Vegas.
The crash that took the life of Dan Wheldon can largely be attributed to the ability of the Indy Racing League chassis to run three-wide on certain oval tracks, an effect largely referred to as ‘pack racing’. While launching over the rear wheel of an opposing car, Wheldon’s crash only arose as a result of the need for cars ahead of him to slow suddenly in an effort to avoid an incident on the racetrack ahead. While the risk of one car striking another will never be removed from oval racing as graphically displayed in the crash of Alex Zanardi in 2001 and the fatal accident of Paul Dana in 2006, it is the propensity for pack racing to create multiple car accidents that’s what brought about the death of Wheldon. While the protection provided by NASCAR ensures driver safety is usually assured in the event of a pile up, the open cockpit and propensity of the cars to take flight make ‘pack racing’ a disaster waiting to happen. While many have blamed the presence of 34 cars on the 1.5 mile oval as a contributing factor, it is the characteristics of the cars and not the circuit that contributed to the 15-car pile up.
Prior to the race in 2011, open-wheel racing had taken place at the Las Vegas Speedway. In 2001 CART were forced to postpone their event after drivers complained of dizzy spells during practice, largely attributed to the enormous g-forces generated by the circuits high banking. Three years later and the series would return to the circuit in 2004 and 2005 and while three-wide racing was possible, pack racing was not as the cars were considerably more spread out. So if the cars are to blame for the events at Las Vegas which has brought about a move away from pack racing on 1.5 mile ovals it’s somewhat timely that in July 2010, Indycar announced that Dallara would develop a whole new chassis for the series which at the time was designed to improve the racing in the series. The question is, will it help prevent the occurance of ‘pack racing’, something which has fallen out of favour towards the end of the cars development?
In a segment compiled at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway following the 2011 Indy 500, expert commentator Jon Beekhius outlined the major changes on the car. The biggest change in philosophy behind the new Dallara is that the car is designed with both oval and street course racing in mind. It has a turbo-charged engine, push rod suspension allowing components to be changed on the top of the chassis rather than underneath, it uses carbon brakes and launch control equipped allowing for the ability to do standing starts. From an aerodynamic perspective the car is lighter, with less drag, producing it’s downforce from the underside of the car rather than from the wings. Most controversial is the presence of aerodynamics in front of the rear wheels which, from a safety perspective, should reduce the dangers that result from cars interlocking wheels. However, as can be seen in the photo below, the potential for the fairing to rub against the rear tyres could overshadow any safety improvement. After the inaugural season, all teams will be allowed to design their own aero kits for the cars which should bring some variety to the appearance and performance of the cars. This variety will not be limited to aerodynamics as engines will be 2.2 litres in capacity and run between 550 and 700 bhp, by a choice of three engines produced from Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus badged engines designed by it’s partners Engine Developments Ltd.
Will this change bring the desired results? There’s no question 2012 will be a learning curve for the Indycar series. While the appearance of the cars does not suit my tastes it certainly is distinctive and does differentiate Indycar from F1. The gradual introduction of variety in both the aerodynamics and engines for the new car should bring a reduction in the ‘pack racing’ effect seen in seasons past however an increase in speed would certainly deter drivers from racing on top of each other. Of most concern however, was the first reaction of drivers back in December with Dario Franchitti complaining of the inability to change the set up of the chassis to suit different driving styles while Scott Dixon has complained about the chassis’ handling characteristics. Dallara have been known to produce poor chassis as displayed with their last foray into Formula 1 with HRT in 2010. Despite some initial problems, Indycar appear to be making all the right moves, reintroducing the variety that gave the sport such popularity in the past. While the death of Dan Wheldon was a great loss to the series, the increased publicity and greater exposure of the sport will only heighten it’s popularity as did the death of Ayrton Senna for Formula 1. If history has taught us one thing, it’s that when the US get open-wheel racing right, it’s one of the greatest forms of motor sport in the world.
The 2012 Indycar Series commences with the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg on 25 March. For more information about the 2012 season don’t miss the Racefans 2012 season preview coming soon.