Building an IRL future

The US Scene

As everyone knows, Indycar racing is trying to pull itself together under the banner of Tony George’s Indy Racing League. A bitter 12-year civil war has come to an end, and it’s encouraging to hear both George and former Champ Car boss Kevin Kalkhoven say that the key to Indycar racing’s future is the new formula for 2011, as discussed in this space last month. Indianapolis Motor Speedway president George added that the IRL is looking seriously at adopting new technology and alternative fuels, so it may be that I was too pessimistic last month regarding the IRL’s internal discussions about its 2011 rules.

During this year’s month of May at Indianapolis, with all the teams competing for the first time since 1995, I expect to hear plenty of conversation about the Indycar of 2011. Two months ago in these pages John Barnard and Mario Illien put forward their ideas for both Formula 1 and Indycars of the future, and I hope their concepts form the basis of this debate. Mario Andretti is one racing expert who agrees with Barnard and Illien.

“Those two guys get it and I agree pretty much with everything they say,” said Mario. “From an engine standpoint, Illien is saying that if you take the development part out of the equation for the manufacturers, why would they want to be there? I’ve maintained all along that Formula 1 needs to retain room for technical development. That is an essential part of the equation. It doesn’t make sense for the manufacturers to race in F1 just for the show.”

Andretti has always believed that making better, more efficient engines is an integral part of racing and is even more relevant in today’s ‘green’ age. “There are so many things that need to be worked on and developed as far as engine efficiencies go, and racing has always provided the push to make that happen,” Mario said. “That’s why the manufacturers have been able to justify being involved and that’s why they’ll continue to be involved in the sport.”

He believes whatever the best rules package may be for F1 or Indycars in the future, it must result in seriously impressive straightline speed and substantial braking into the corners. Andretti is convinced this is an essential element in testing the drivers’ skills as well as providing a spectacle and passing for the fans.

“The one part I don’t necessarily agree with John Barnard about is the aerodynamic package he suggests,” Mario observed. “He maintains that there should be a drag increase to slow down the straightline speed and I think that is contrary to what needs to be done, because the slower you go down the straightaway, the shorter your braking is going to be. If the straightline speed in F1 is 230mph, then at least you’ve got some braking distance to work with.

“To me, straightline speed is essential for good braking before any kind of corner. Otherwise, you’re where you are right now, where the braking is so late that there’s no space to outbrake or pass under braking. It’s a daunting job to try to create a balance for that but I’ve maintained all along that’s the way it should be.

“It’s the same with the ovals and Indycars,” he went on. “You need straightline speed so you can back off for the corners. When they started curtailing the straightline speed on the superspeedways to about 225-230mph, the result was that the cars are now cornering at about the same speed. And that’s why it’s so hard to pass in Indycars.

“You need to run 250mph on the straight like we used to run at Michigan in qualifying in the mid-1990s. OK, you would get one lap in qualifying that was flat, but in the race you weren’t flat. You couldn’t run around there flat, because the straightline speed was too high for the corners. That’s the way you maintain some decent racing.”

I share Mario’s frustration with the rulemakers who have made such a hash of the sport over the years and both of us hope things will get better in the discussion, planning and implementation of the IRL’s 2011 rules. “I don’t think most of the people writing the rules understand what creates competition,” Andretti said. “To stay flat on the throttle all the time like the IRL does, where do you go, where does the driver reach to be able to pass? You’ve got to have it so you’re quick down the straightaway and have to slow down for the corner. It’s just a question of how much are you going to back off. That’s what’s going to make a difference and create some passing, which is so damn difficult right now in the IRL.”

So the silence has been broken and the debate about the future has started. For the first time in many years I look forward to the month of May at the Speedway.