Dallara fires first shot in chassis derby
It may seem that the year 2012 is a long way away, but in terms of designing, testing and developing a brand new racecar, time is running short. Especially if radical changes to the status quo are in store.
Under Brian Barnhart's management, the Indy Racing League has been dragging its feet in terms of introducing a new car. The current Dallara chassis that has become the default spec package for the Izod IndyCar Series was introduced in 2003, meaning that by the end of 2011, it will have completed nine years of service.
That's more than an eternity in racing terms, and the ungainly look of the Dallara and the harsh sound of the naturally aspirated V-8 engines used by the IndyCar Series since 1997 have played a part in the downfall of Indy car racing in that time span.
The Indianapolis 500 in particular has a rich history of technical innovation, and the fact that Indy car racing has devolved into a spec formula has been extremely disappointing for longtime fans of the sport. The bad news is that the IndyCar Series is likely to continue as a spec formula beyond 2011, but the indications are that IRL officials recognize that the formula for the future must be a cutting-edge design that incorporates speed, sexiness and relevance to the mass-market auto industry.
This week, the IRL released a list of objectives for the Indy car of tomorrow and revealed it is in discussions with traditional racecar manufacturers Dallara, Swift and Lola. It is also in talks with a new group, DeltaWing, about future participation.
Submitted designs are expected to be much lighter and more efficient, yet meet current safety standards and maintain the level of competition the IndyCar Series is known for. The car is mandated to be made available to competitors at a considerable cost reduction from the current Dallara, which sells for some $400,000. American production -- preferably in Indiana -- is another consideration. It is also hoped that a more modern design will offer additional space for sponsor logos and promote ecology-friendly technology relevant to road cars.
"For the last year we have engaged in ongoing conversations with four chassis makers on two different design tracks," Barnhart said. "Now we are receiving concepts and will make a decision soon.
"Our chassis is the most complex challenge in world motorsports because of the variety of race courses where we compete," he added. "It must be designed to run at 235 mph at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and protect drivers and spectators in high-speed crashes. It must be able to perform on superspeedways, speedways and short ovals, as well as natural terrain road courses and temporary circuits."
Dallara was the first to go public with its ideas for the future, releasing three renderings of potential Indy car designs. The Italian manufacturer has supplied chassis to the IRL since 1997, the first year the IndyCar Series utilized its own chassis formula. Dallara has pledged that if selected as a future chassis supplier, production will shift to the USA and the car will be made available for 55 percent of the cost of Dallara's current car.
"We can achieve all of these objectives," said company founder Gian Paolo Dallara. "The new Dallara Indy car will be built in Speedway, Ind., and it will set new standards in terms of safety, fuel efficiency, raceability, technology, performance and cost containment."
Of the three Dallara renderings, my favorite combines the needle nose of the current Dallara IRL car with the rear half of the Lola or Reynard chassis that raced in the CART/Champ Car series -- and at Indianapolis through 1996, prior to the introduction of the naturally aspirated IRL formula. The other two designs feature more bulbous bodywork, with one bearing a strong resemblance to the early '80s Eagle Indy car chassis produced by Dan Gurney's All American Racers.
DeltaWing is the great unknown in the IRL chassis sweepstakes. Details have leaked about the project, which has the backing of several IRL team owners (including Vision Racing boss and IRL founder Tony George, who pulled out of the sport last month) claiming that the DeltaWing design is a radical departure from the look and layout of a traditional Indy car.
DeltaWing designer Ben Bowlby and managing director Dan Partel, both ex-Lola hands, will unveil their design on Wednesday at the Chicago Auto Show.
Over the past year, Barnhart has spoken frequently about the two parallel design paths the IRL could follow, and clearly there is a serious debate going on behind the scenes about just how radically the leaders of the sport want to shake things up. I personally believe this is not the time to try to reinvent the wheel. Indy car racing is in enough of a state of flux with George's withdrawal from the sport and the overall change in leadership that has occurred over the past couple of years.
I think a modernized version of the cars that helped Indy car racing reach its peak in popularity in the 1980s and '90s is in order. Those cars were swift and sexy; they looked and sounded good, and with modern technology advances (not to mention the SAFER Barrier system, an oft-overlooked part of George's legacy), safety would not be as much of a question as it would be with a completely new and unproven design direction.
It's good news that the IRL is giving fans and competitors something to look forward to for the future. In that regard, 2012 can't get here fast enough.
John Oreovicz covers open-wheel racing for ESPN.com.
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