Forget about the current IndyCars. What about the future?
This month, four possible paths emerged for the Indy Racing League to take as it decides what will be the next generation of IndyCars starting in 2012. The concepts from Dallara, Lola, Swift and Delta Wing have ranged from traditional to radical, evolutionary to revolutionary, familiar to different.
All of them have had to meet eight major criteria put forth by the IRL earlier this month: Safety, raceability, American manufacturing, cost-effectiveness, less mass/more efficiency, relevant technology, a modern look, and being "green." And ever since they've been released to the public, the open-wheel fan base has been debating and dissecting their respective merits with gusto.
They will be doing that all the way through to this summer, when a final decision is expected from the league. President of competition Brian Barnhart has said he wants an 18-20 month window for proper execution, so based on that, the call could be made as early as the month of May during preparations for the Indianapolis 500.
Let's take a look at the pros and cons for each of the four concepts.
Dallara as Ol' reliable
The league's sole chassis supplier since 2006, Dallara's current car has been in action since 2003. Since that time, the IRL has morphed from a series with multiple chassis and engine manufacturers to a one-make entity and it's going to stay that way on the chassis front. So why not go with the tried and tested Dallara, who has helped the league get to its current adolescence and whose familiarity and longevity is an important element in its favor?
Dallara says that their car will have less drag and more downforce than their current model, and the final cost of the complete package (i.e. all the parts needed to race on the different sets of tracks the series visits) would be 55 percent of what the current car costs now. If Dallara gets the contract to make the 2012 chassis, they'll manufacture the car in a planned new facility in central Indiana, so there's also the chance of more jobs for the local racing industry in the region.
It's a decent rundown for sure. But there's a definite argument to be made about being stale. We've seen the current needle-nosed Dallara for seven seasons and it feels like the hate for the car has only kept growing. For fans that want to see the series take a fresh, new approach to things, having Dallara along for the ride does not seem to work. Never mind that that its three evolutionary concepts are all quite different from their current offering: It's Dallara. Get it?
But here's another thing to keep in mind -- the concepts from Dallara were leaked via e-mail on Feb. 4 (one day before the manufacturer's official release of the designs) by the Indy Racing League. Take that into consideration and the question of whether this chassis process is or isn't just a bunch of smoke and mirrors becomes a valid one.
Lola makes a two-in-one solution
Another constructor with a strong link to major-league open-wheel racing is Lola, who is looking to impress league officials with a package that may not be a stunner in the looks department but features two aspects that should warrant serious attention.
The first major feature of Lola's concepts is the dual body styles that are achieved through visual variations on the machine. There are seven parts of the common chassis that can be switched up to create different looks: the front wing endplates, roll hoop, wing mirrors, rear wheel protection, the top surface of the nose and a dorsal fin. Lola says these parts will be aerodynamically matched so one style doesn't out-perform the other.
The other major feature is the chassis' commonality between the IZOD IndyCar Series and Firestone Indy Lights, the IRL's development series -- an attempt to incite more teams into fielding programs at both levels and help Lights squads move up to IndyCar in a cheaper fashion. With the Lola, the chassis, nosebox and fuel system will be the same across both series.
Combine that with smart safety moves (longer front wings and small "protector" pieces behind the rear tires to stop wheel-to-wheel contact) and a move to utilize the rear underbody in cutting the turbulence in a car's wake, and the 2012 Lola appears to be another solid package. But like Dallara, the cars simply do not pop in terms of design. There are some evolutionary tweaks for sure, but if Lola does not win the contract, they may wind up wondering if they should've gone more "forward" in this regard.
Swift goes for a Fusion act
If online fan reaction is an indication, the group at Swift Engineering has put together a winner with their concept package. Seemingly aimed to strike a balance between the present and the future, the Swift concepts also feature multiple aspects that should be a must for all of the next-generation IndyCars regardless of who builds it.
Like the Lola chassis, the Swift concepts focus on breaking turbulence that oncoming cars must contend with, although they actually decided to name their device that does the job, which is called the "Mushroom Buster." The Buster sweeps the wake upward and with its current use on Swift's Formula Nippon machines, the capabilities of this device would likely be expanded upon in the IndyCars.
Swift has also attempted to help fans at the track get more real-time information on specific cars with their "SwiftLights" -- moldable, one-millimeter-thick sheets of clear plastic that can be used to show throttle/brake position, fuel levels, and race position. If fans can find them readable at 200+ miles per hour, then this could go down as a stroke of genius.
The design cues are also solid as well. While it follows the same guidelines of a modern IndyCar, Swift deserves points for taking out some of the rear bodywork to reveal part of the engine and other mechanical parts. It's a fresh, interesting look. The side pods on the No. 32 and No. 33 concepts are extended for more signage space, and they also help stop that pesky interlocking wheel problem as well.
By combining both old and new elements in design, as well as some fantastic examples of forward thinking, the Swift concepts are geared to move IndyCars forward but have them retain what makes them...well, IndyCars.
Delta Wing goes radical, dude
It's not a stretch to say that the Delta Wing has sent shockwaves throughout the racing world and beyond since it was unveiled at this month's Chicago Auto Show. Love it or hate it, the buzz surrounding this machine is growing and that's exactly what Chip Ganassi, designer Ben Bowlby and the rest of the principals on the project are looking for. But is their machine what the fans are looking for?
According to Delta Wing, their car can rattle off 235 m.p.h. laps with half the horsepower of a current IndyCar. It also has several notable tech aspects, such as using its wide rear underbody to produce downforce, fuel flow control to contain speed, and a sub-chassis that carries the front suspension, brakes and wheels. But perhaps the most unique part of Delta Wing's concept is its open-source aspect; the company plans to put all of their designs online and allow anybody from manufacturers to students to create new parts that may be approved for use on the car.
While Dallara, Lola and Swift may not be keen on making anything but their own cars, this could definitely be an avenue for some smart, young minds to make their way into the sport.
But all of these cool ideas are getting completely overshadowed by the fighter-jet-on-wheels design, which has been ripped to shreds by many in the fan base -- every name has been used to mock the Delta Wing, ranging from Batmobile to much naughtier things that can't be said here. As more time passes after the unveiling, Delta Wing has to hope that their car's attributes will be able to stick with fans and help to create their own group of followers. Unfortunately for them, they may always be outnumbered by people who simply cannot get past the look.
It's clear that the Delta Wing is the most revolutionary of the four. But it has also triggered a divide in the process between traditionalists that are dwindling in number but still have plenty of passion and newer fans that are convinced that IndyCar needs major change in order to reclaim its former prominence.
Regardless of which chassis is chosen, both sides must keep the heat on the IRL by letting them know that enhancing the on-track product is priority one. A hot car is only one part of the solution. It must create great action on the track and get more people to follow the sport, so we can be assured that it will have many more design cycles like this in the future.
As well as the debates that come with them.