With the merger done and gone, the biggest topics of discussion regarding American open wheel racing are about its future.
Should standing starts be implemented? Option tires? Power-to-Pass?
Most of the speculation is a matter of opinion. Most people like the option tires, but power-to-pass and standing starts are a little touchier. For certain, neither is needed (or in the case of standing starts, recommended) on an oval, which is prime ammunition for those who oppose them.
That's not what I want to address. Those are minor matters which can be worked out later. What I want to talk about today is the future IRL chassis and engine formula.
Much has been speculated, but little is certain. The only thing agreed on is that new cars are needed. Haters of the current car's looks, exhaust note, and performance want the Dallara gone ASAP in favor of something sexy which goes really fast and sounds beautiful.
Those who like the current chassis still admit it's an aging design which should be replaced—though they don't feel such a desperate need for it to happen quickly.
But this is, in the end, the only thing that every IRL follower agrees on: A new car must be created soon.
The problem is that beyond that, there isn't much that's agreed on. Many (mainly former Champ Car fans) want more power. Others think they've got it right. Some want turbos, some want to stick to natural aspiration. Some want six cylinders, others eight, some 12, some four. I even saw a guy once recommend 16 cylinders! Now THAT'S overboard!
Let's look at the pros and cons of each matter, and then figure out based on them which way to go.
The manufacturer's roundtables have been leaning towards four or six cylinder turbocharged engines, but many are clamoring to stick to natural aspiration. It does seem, however, that the vast majority of fans want the turbos. Well, let's take a look at the benefits of a turbo V6 compared to a naturally aspirated V8.
The Turbocharged V Six
Pros: Easily tuned, easily adjusted, cheap to manufacture, pleasantly quiet.
Cons: Less reliable, sometimes TOO quiet.
Either one dependent on opinion: Turbo lag creates a challenge in the corners by forcing drivers to anticipate how long it will take for the power to come in. More opportunity for mistakes on road courses as a result.
The N/A V Eight
Pros: Greater reliability, nicely loud exhaust note.
Cons: Exhaust note can be EXCESSIVELY loud sometimes, more expensive than turbos.
Either one is dependent on opinion: Power comes as soon as the driver hits the gas. Not an issue on ovals, but on road courses this does affect the racing in a way that is either good or bad depending on your viewpoint.
Of course there's also the issue of the noise. It seems that most out there preferred the exhaust note of Champ Car's turbos to the "drone" of the Indy V8s, but that drone can be blamed mostly on the IRL's rev limiter. This unfortunately is the only effective way to limit its power output while getting the best delivery of the power it has.
Overall, the turbo has to win this battle. Even with lower reliability, its overall cost will likely be lower, it's more appealing to current manufacturer's, and it's easily adjustable, the importance of which will be made after comparing the two sides of the next point.
Current output: Approx 650 BHP.
Pros: Not too excessive for long tracks like Indy or high banked tracks like Texas.
Cons: Far too low for road courses.
Increased output: 750-800 BHP.
Pros: Perfect for road courses.
Cons: Possibly way too much speed on tracks like Texas (remember CART's visit) and Indy.
The two arguments are pretty well equal here, and the best thing to do in this regard is just stick to the current output on the 1.5-mile and longer ovals while boosting the power for the road and street circuits, as well as possibly the shorter ovals.
A turbocharged engine, being more easily adjustable, is far more suited to such a situation than a naturally-aspirated engine.
So on the engine front, a turbo V6 or I4 seems to be the way to go. For reliability's sake, I'd say go with a turbo V6.
The chassis is a slightly different matter. There's nothing really to compare for pros and cons on the matter. All I can really do is list what it needs to be in order of importance.
1: Must be safe
2: Must have good performance
3: Must be sexy
Yes, once again I reiterate the argument I stated in a previous article of mine that the appearance should be the LAST thing.
You should build a chassis that does the job well, THEN you worry about how it looks. This is the philosophy that's ultimately got the Dallara being the current workhorse of the IRL: It was designed to do its job, and do it safely first.
Sure, it has severe issues with blowovers, but honestly that's not as important as the driver's ability to climb out of that car after the blowover occurs.
One can argue that a good looking car is an absolute necessity in order to bring in casual viewers.
I say that's not true. Why? Well I can use the disagreement over the Dallara to explain why.
Just as many people LIKE its looks as hate it. No matter how much effort you put into crafting a design, there will ALWAYS be people who hate it. Trying to please everyone will be a waste of time as around half of the people out there will always like it, and about half will always hate it.
The only question will be which side will be more vocal. A GOOD racecar is one that does its job so well that you FORGET about its looks. The Dallara manages to do this quite well in oval trim (which is absolutely hideous), and while it has issues in road course trim, the bodywork details in that mode partially make up for it (the Dallara isn't nearly as ugly in road course trim as it is in oval trim).
Safety, performance, and good looks CAN be combined. The Swift 017.n/FN09 (pictured above) that will be used in the Formula Nippon championship next year is a good example of this.
So it's not expecting too much to hope that the 2011-spec IRL car will be able to look good while prioritizing safety and performance. Since the future car will need to work equally well on ovals AND road courses (the Dallara was not originally designed for road racing, keep in mind, but adapted), it will not likely look ANYTHING like the Dallara.
And that brings me to the final point: 2011. Probably the ONLY thing that all fans agree on is that 2010 should be when a new car is introduced, and Tony George implied that was the target when he made the offer that led to unification.
Well, I'm about to voice some sensible dissent to the 2010 feeling. As someone who isn't a big fan of the current Dallara's looks, I'd like to see them gone ASAP. But the more I think about the wait, the more sense it makes to me.
Think about the Panoz DP01. It went from concept to completion in just over a year, and when the season began they had some teething problems with the fuelling, seat belt mountings, and a couple other (minor) things.
If the IRL shows us the 2011 concept this winter, they'll have about two years to do what Panoz had to do in one. I can almost guarantee you that the extra time would allow Dallara to build a car that would end up running without any serious issues the day it was first run.
Additionally, take a look at A1GP. They had a reduced grid for their first race because Ferrari couldn't build enough of the new cars in time for the first race. This was after one race had already been rescheduled to accommodate the delays. Dallara will have to provide even MORE of the new IRL cars than Ferrari had to provide A1GP.
I'd rather wait an extra year to see a car that's safe, fast, and beautiful being run by all the teams than see anything get compromised to get the cars done early.
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