Gordon Kirby – The US Scene

Lay your cards on the table

The big news at this year’s 92nd Indy 500 was the creation of an industry ‘round table’ convened for the IRL by retired Ford racing executive Neil Ressler’s consulting company RWB. Under Ressler and RWB’s direction the assembly of engine manufacturers, car builders and other stakeholders in the sport will debate the 2011 Indycar rules this summer and help determine the new formula which everyone hopes will revive and recharge Indycar racing.

At the same time Honda announced a five-year extension in its commitment to supply the Indycar series with engines until 2013. “We like the notion of competition that would include other manufacturers, so we are delighted with the league’s intention to host this round table,” said Honda Performance Development president Erik Berkman. “We think that by working with other manufacturers and discussing the concepts we can bring back some competition that will help to spice up the close racing we already have.

“We could not be happier announcing our intention for five more years,” Berkman added. “That adds to the stability and what’s needed in going forward, so there is no doubt where Honda’s position is.”

Berkman said Honda preferred to have competitors but would continue as the IRL’s only engine builder if that’s what it comes down to. “Having competition is something we really want,” he said. “But in the event we continue as a sole supplier, we will still benefit from that.”

The IRL’s president of competition and operations, Brian Barnhart, also talked about the industry round table. “We would like to get the senior level management people from the automotive industry to sit down and see if we can find a collective agreement on what the technology should be,” he said. “We want it to be a fresh approach. When we get that many key players in the same room at the same time, if we can find a consensus among several of them who would like to participate in the Indycar series, we’ll be very open-minded.”

Barnhart said the IRL is likely to continue with a single supply chassis. “I really like the aspects of an exclusive supply on tyres and the chassis,” Barnhart said. “We’d like to focus on multiple manufacturers on the engine side. I think that’s the direction the series needs to go in that makes the most sense. Exclusive supply on the chassis and tyres is the best way of controlling performance, speed, cost, safety – many of those aspects.”

Bobby Rahal is an IRL team owner, three-time CART champion and successful automobile dealer. He is adamant that the new formula must begin to embrace the wholesale move across the automotive industry to build more fuel-efficient cars.

Bobby is one of many people in the sport who also believe the turbocharger must be part of the new engine formula. Rahal sees a twin turbo V6 as the ideal way to go.

“I personally think we ought to be looking at a small capacity 2.0 or 2.2-litre turbocharged V6 or V8,” he suggests. “Turbocharged small-capacity engines are the way to go because that’s the way the automotive market is going. It’s already there, in fact, and with the turbocharger – especially if it’s a one-engine series – you can turn the boost up or down depending on the type of circuit and have varying levels of performance.

“With a turbo you don’t have to worry about the noise issue when you go to street circuits or places like Laguna Seca where, increasingly, you have noise limits.”

Rahal prefers the idea of a twin turbo V6 which he believes would be cheaper to build and run because it would have fewer parts than a V8. “I’d make it a twin turbo rather than a single because it gives better response and performance. We did a study some years ago at CART about the difference between a V6 and V8 in terms of parts, and it adds up. You’ve got a smaller crankshaft, two less connecting rods and eight fewer valves.”

Another benefit of turbo engines is that the boost control can be used by the sanctioning body to judiciously control horsepower outputs as development among competing manufacturers drives up power. This is one of the many areas in which CART failed to do the job correctly, ultimately chasing away rather than encouraging and maintaining multiple engine manufacturers.

“We saw in CART, when there were three or four different engine manufacturers, that whenever there was discussion about changing boost settings for a race or what have you, you could never get all the manufacturers to agree to it,” Rahal recalls. “If one of them perceived that it was not in its best interest they would veto it.

“So it’s difficult when you have multiple manufacturers. A lot depends on the sanctioning body, of course. If it’s considered of value to be involved in the series then the manufacturers will continue. NASCAR plays around with their engine rules all the time and nobody seems to say much. They all mutter, but nobody says much because they feel they need to be there.”

Rahal believes kinetic energy recovery systems (KERS) or any kind of hybrid should be considered for adoption by the IRL in 2014 or thereabouts, but no earlier. He’s convinced that it would be far too costly to introduce that kind of technology to Indycar racing at this stage of the game. “Longer term, we probably should go to flywheels,” he said. “But that’s maybe five, six or seven years down the road. You’ve got to be realistic.”

Rahal agrees with Mario Andretti and many others in the sport who believe the balance between downforce and horsepower must return to where it was some years ago, with more power and less downforce so the driver has to lift substantially for the corners.

“Along with the engines, the aero side has to be back where it should be, not where it is currently,” Bobby said. “In the 1980s and ’90s there was never enough downforce for the power. You might have been able to suck it up for one or two laps for qualifying, and that’s fine, but for the race you need to have it to where there is less downforce than power. The power-to-downforce ratio needs to be the inverse of what it is today.

“The number one benefit of more power and less downforce is that it gives you separation, so you don’t have people running around stacked on top of one another. And number two is that the good drivers will be able to show themselves.”


Indy king Dixon sets up title run

Scott Dixon had the fastest car all month at Indianapolis this year and, after qualifying his Chip Ganassi Dallara-Honda on pole, he dominated a furious race, leading 115 of the 200 laps. The only other man to lead a substantial portion of laps was Dixon’s team-mate Dan Wheldon, but the Briton lost the handle on his car because of a broken shock absorber and wound up finishing 12th.

Thereafter the only drivers to seriously challenge Dixon were second-placed Vítor Meira, third-placed Marco Andretti and Tony Kanaan. But Andretti made a late-race tactical error on downforce and couldn’t make an impression on the leaders, having earlier dive-bombed his Andretti-Green Racing team-mate Kanaan while they were racing hard in traffic, forcing him to crash out.

There’s no question that Dixon, Wheldon and Ganassi’s team are heavy favourites to win this year’s championship. Dixon was beaten to last year’s title by Dario Franchitti and AGR after a fierce late-season battle. Dixon and Ganassi (above) last won the championship in 2003 when it was almost exclusively an oval racing series, so it will be interesting to see if they can complete the Indy 500/IRL title double.


IRL starts to spread its wings

There was more good news during the month of May with regards to the IRL’s future. Andretti-Green has purchased the suspended Toronto street race and will promote and revive the event next year. Michael Andretti said his organisation will start pursuing sponsorship in the next few weeks and assured me he is committed to making the race as successful as it was in its heyday through the late 1980s and ’90s.

There are hopes that a date will also be found in 2009 for a race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (NHMS). The one-mile oval in New England is ideal for Indycar racing and produced a memorable event in 1993, when Nigel Mansell and Paul Tracy staged a fantastic duel.

The IRL desperately needs a race in the north east and NHMS – owned by Bruton Smith – is the only track available. There are no other top-class ovals or road circuits in the region and the history, politics and culture of the area mean there is zero chance of a street race. NHMS executive vice-president Jerry Gappens, who made a presentation to Tony George in May, said he was hopeful that the IRL could return
to New England after a 10-year absence.