Gordon Kirby – The US Scene

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Rules row shifts to ovals

The battle for this year’s IRL IndyCar Series title is strictly between Ganassi Racing and Team Penske, and as the season settled into its second half it looked like Chip’s team had the upper hand. Dario Franchitti and Scott Dixon have been contenders to win most of this year’s races. More consistently competitive than anyone else and, at mid-season, separated by just a handful of points, this pair look awfully difficult to beat. “There’s still room for improvement,” said Dario. “But across the board, I think we’ve been very competitive.”

Both Franchitti and Dixon have been critical of the IRL’s current rules package on ovals, where passing has been all but impossible this season. The IR L has fiddled with the rules for the last four oval races of the year, but neither Dario nor Scott think the detail changes are enough. “I’m not a fan of the current rules on the 1.5-mile tracks,” said Franchitti. “I’m not sure what the best package would be, but they definitely need to make some major changes.” Added Dixon: “The rule changes they’ve proposed for some of the ovals are a step in the right direction, but it’s only a small start.”

Like Gil de Ferran and Mauricio Gugelmin in our story about their record 240mph-plus qualifying laps from 10 years ago (September issue), Dixon and Franchitti believe an Indycar is supposed to be an overpowered beast to drive, not a spec car in the style of Indy Lights. Their belief about what defines an Indycar is shared by many others – from champion drivers such as Mario Andretti, Johnny Rutherford, Bobby Rahal and Al Unser Jr, to crewmen, engineers and innumerable fans, too.

“[The rule makers] have got to step away from making the cars identical,” said Dixon. “The way it is today, it’s almost a glorified Indy Lights car, which is not what Indycars are about. Limiting things like the wheelbase you can run is just ridiculous, and hopefully they’ll open it up a little bit more.”

Ganassi general manager Mike Hull is equally critical of the IRL’s approach: “In my opinion the IRL needs to be much more aggressive about how they tackle these things. They need to take some big bites, not just fiddle with the details.”

Looking ahead to the mooted 2012 IRL formula, Dixon would love to see considerably more power and much less drag, with more downforce generated by the car’s underwing than its external wings. “The key thing is the horsepower,” said Scott. “We’re at just over 600, or maybe 650 – nobody really knows. If you look at the end of the CART days when we had almost 1000 horsepower, I think we have to get back to that. They’re throwing around four-cylinder options, but to me that’s not what an Indycar is. It might be the direction that technology is going for the consumer, but I would prefer a V8 turbo with more power and more torque.

“If you had a proper V8 with a turbo you could turn the boost down on the ovals so you’re not achieving ridiculous speeds,” added Dixon. “Reliability could become an issue with a four-cylinder. You’ve got to push a lot of power out of such a little motor. I also think most people would relate to a V8 or a twin turbo V6 much more than a four-cylinder.

“You could turn the boost up or down, so you had less power for the ovals but still had 800 or 900 horsepower for street or road courses. Having that kind of horsepower brings a hugely different element to it and makes it a lot more difficult for the drivers. It’s easier to make a mistake as you’re trying to go for the gas. The way it is now on some of the ovals you don’t want to lift. You just stay flat because if you lift you’re going to lose a ton of [places] and you can’t pass anybody.

“You need the adjustability of the power for different tracks, and boost is a good way to do that. I think downforce is an area where there are different thoughts about having a lot of it or almost none at all. The old Champ Car definitely had a good balance. You need to generate more downforce from the underwing as opposed to the wings.”

Franchitti agrees: “I’d love to see the horsepower on the road courses up at around 900, maybe more. We used to have 1000hp 10 years ago. I don’t know if we need to go that high again. One thing is that when you have so much power, it makes the straights a lot shorter, which makes it more difficult to overtake. But I’d like to see around 900 horsepower, definitely over 800.”

Despite Dixon and Franchitti’s pleas, the IRL appears set to restrict power on the ovals to less than 600bhp and no more than 750 on road courses. Vice-president of competition Brian Barnhart says five engine manufacturers – Honda, Audi, Porsche, Volkswagen and Fiat – continue to show interest in the 2012 formula. “We are expecting to finalise the car and engine specifications in the next few months,” he said in July.

Barnhart added that it’s unlikely the new formula can be introduced before 2012. “We’re not ruling out 2011, but I’m not sure that is a comfortable timeframe for what we feel needs to be done,” he said. “Our focus is on 2012, but if we can go to it quicker then we’ll get it in place for 2011.”

Honda’s American racing boss Erik Berkman says some urgency has entered its purview for determining the 2012 rules. Honda prefers a turbo V6 engine, while the IRL and German manufacturers want a four-cylinder turbo. “I think it’s time for us to have a round table meeting,” said Berkman. “We had hoped to have a meeting at Indianapolis in May, but
it didn’t happen. We now hope to meet with the IRL and interested manufacturers as soon as possible.

“We want to support the Indycar series,” added Berkman. “We want to do what we can to make it better and stronger. We think equivalencies are okay, but we really don’t like the idea. We understand that the German companies have some resistance to 100 per cent alcohol [fuel]. We have some resistance to a four-cylinder. But that doesn’t mean we can’t broker a deal if we get together and work through all this stuff.”

Here’s hoping Berkman is right and that Indycar racing doesn’t tread at its peril into an irretrievably incorrect formula for 2012.

*****

Acura faces Peugeot challenge

Acura’s ARX-02a LMP1 car has dominated this year’s American Le Mans Series. Gil de Ferran and Simon Pagenaud scored De Ferran Motorsport’s third straight win at Lime Rock in July (above), narrowly beating Highcroft Racing’s similar car driven by David Brabham/Scott Sharp. The rest of a depleted P1 and P2 field, led by the Ginetta-Zytek hybrid driven by Johnny Mowlem and Stefan Johansson, were seven or more laps behind. Peugeot has said that it will run one of its Le Mans-winning 908 HDIs in the Petit Le Mans race at Road Atlanta in September, and Brabham reckons the turbodiesels will be hard to beat.

“The Peugeot should be very strong there because the turbodiesel has quite a lot more power,” he said. “If you just look at Le Mans, you can see that. Peugeot have a very good package chassis-wise, as well as [with the] engine.

“We’re getting more of an understanding with the Acura, but I still think that when the Peugeot arrives it’ll be pretty tough to beat them. Last year we struggled to beat the Penske Porsches [at Road Atlanta] because they had that bit more straightline speed, and around there that’s crucial.”

Persistent rumours suggest Acura will pull out of the ALMS at the end of this year. But in mid-July Honda US racing boss Erik Berkman said: “It’s premature to talk about 2010. This time last year we’d made our decisions about the P1 programme. We’re trying to do the right thing to keep racing in the hope we can find a way through. We’ve got ongoing discussions with our teams.”

It seems likely that IMSA will create an equivalency formula to encourage Grand-Am Daytona Prototypes to race in next year’s ALMS. Precisely what the future holds for that series remains unclear.

*****

FFord festivities boosted by Honda

I had the great pleasure of spending a few days at Road America in July for the celebration of 40 years of Formula Ford racing in the United States. A tremendous collection of more than 200 FFords turned out for the weekend event, organised by long-time single-seater racer and track manager Mike Rand. The event attracted examples of almost every conceivable type of FF1600, from Lotus 51s to the latest Swift, and it was great to see former champions Skip Barber, Dave Weitzenhof and David Loring enjoying the celebrations.

During the event Honda announced its plans to enter a Fit-based engine in American FFord racing next year, pending its final approval by the SCCA, expected in November. The engine is the first tangible step in the marque’s new grassroots racing initiative which will lead to the supply of parts branded with the Honda Performance Development name to Honda and Acura club racers.

The new fuel-injected FFord engine is based on the Fit four-cylinder 1.5-litre overhead cam L15A7 unit. It has been developed by HPD in company with Sandy Shamlian of Quicksilver Racing. The aim was to produce a power curve comparable with the existing and long outdated ‘Kent’ FFord engine, but with a longer service life, improved availability of parts and cheaper operating costs.

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