The Delta Wing Quandary
Before we actually knew that the Delta Wing project had a name, we just called it the “radical design”. Unlike most, I’ve already come down on the side of being against the Delta Wing. Not because I’m against revolutionary designs – any long term reader of this site knows that I am completely in favor of innovation when it comes to IndyCars. My problem with the Delta Wing car is that it isn’t true innovation when the entire Izod IndyCar Series is told that they must run this car. Innovation is about taking a chance on something that is a little “out there” in the hopes that it might possibly give you the all-important slight advantage. There is no advantage when the entire field has the same car. Then it just becomes a gimmick.
I don’t always pay a lot of attention to rumors. Sometimes they have merit but more times than not, they end up being just fodder for speculation during the off-season. One rumor that seems to be picking up a little steam is the potential bickering that might occur over the Delta Wing project. As with most things that have a lot of money at stake, politics are starting to become part of the story of the Delta Wing car.
For those not familiar with the story, here’s a brief synopsis: The current Dallara chassis has been in use since 2003. The Panoz (G-Force) chassis was also used for a while, but fell out of favor. Most Panoz teams had switched to the Dallara by 2006. A few teams used the Panoz only on road courses in 2006. By 2007, the Panoz was only allowed to be used at Indy. By 2008, the Panoz was legislated out of competition completely. As recently as 2005, there were two chassis and three engine manufacturers that a team could choose to use. By 2008, there was no choice. A Dallara-Honda sat in every spot on the grid.
The Dallara that has been in use since 2003 is finally slated for retirement after the 2011 season. That will be nine seasons for the Dallara – an eternity in a sport that used to see completely new equipment every season. Rather than opening up the series for several competitive chassis to be built for 2012, the league has once again decided that the spec (single) chassis is the way to go. They have allowed two separate projects to go down parallel paths to develop a new chassis for 2012 and beyond.
The league has given Dallara the go-ahead to develop an evolutionary version of the current car. It is widely believed that it is again something that will be totally recognizable as to what people think an IndyCar looks like. The other project is the Delta Wing project. Although the select few that have seen drawings have signed confidentiality agreements and are keeping quiet – word has gotten out that the car resembles something between a rocket and a motorcycle.
Where this story gets interesting is when you look at the power play behind the two projects. With varying degrees of involvement, it is said that Chip Ganassi, Michael Andretti and Roger Penske are all in favor of the Delta Wing project. Some of them reportedly have a financial stake in the project, while others are just solidly in favor of it. The kicker in the deal is that this group is starting to feel that Brian Barnhart and the league are more in favor of the more conventional and (probably) cheaper Dallara.
When we first heard of the two parallel projects a few months ago and we learned that they would probably only allow one to proceed, you knew that one group was going to be disappointed. History has shown us that when a group of egocentric car owners (and track owners) start feeling like they have lost control of a situation – things tend to get ugly.
When Dan Gurney, Roger Penske and Pat Patrick felt like they had no control over the direction that USAC was taking the IndyCar Series, they formed CART in the fall of 1978. Another divisive split took place when Tony George was given no say-so in the CART board meetings. When his nominee for CART Commissioner was shot down in the early 90’s, he announced the forming of his own league.
If the league sides with Dallara – a partner of the league since they started building cars for the IRL for the 1997 season – could that incense the three most powerful owners in the league to do something that drastic? I would like to think they wouldn’t, but remember that Formula One owners came very close to going down that path just a few months ago. Normally great and astute businessmen seem to lose their entire sense of logic when their pride and ego are ruffled.
I fault the league for this mess. This was certainly avoidable. The proverbial can of worms was opened when they encouraged both groups to spend a lot of time and money on their respective projects. Anyone could predict that the league was certain to alienate either a long-time partner or a powerful ownership coalition. To think that this would have a happy ending was foolish. You knew it had the potential to get ugly, no matter which way they went – and now it seems that it is about to.
Of course, my big question is…why not let them both run? The problem is that the cost structure laid out by the league is so low that a chassis manufacturer has to supply the entire field in order to be profitable. So raise the price. Even if they only get five years use out of the new chassis instead of the nine they got out of this one, the investment would be low over time. Have both manufacturers structure the cost where they can make money by supplying half the field. If one becomes a more popular design than the other, fine – that’s called competition.
Here’s a thought – allow this current old dinosaur Dallara to be run, also. That would give Dallara an incentive to make sure that the new car is faster than the old one. That’s the problem with this current set of rules. Dallara or Delta Wing has no incentive to build a fast racecar, since they are the only ones in the show. When this current Dallara was designed, they thought they would be facing challenges from G-Force (Panoz) and even the Falcon. Now, neither project is designing their car with a challenger in mind. That very concept simply goes against everything that motor racing was meant to be about.
Last night, I heard Curt Cavin offer one of the most rational ideas I’ve heard in a while. He said that the league should just put together some basic specs regarding width, length and weight; then let everyone build what they wanted. It wouldn’t be cheap, but it would certainly be interesting.
So with all of the problems that are facing the league for 2010, they’ve created this one on their own. Now, whichever way they choose to go – they’re screwed. Choosing either project could have massive consequences. To me, the most sensible approach for the long run is to run them both. Yes, I realize it is expensive for the short haul, but it keeps the backers of both programs happy and it generates some genuine fan interest when it is desperately lacking. Best of all, it would allow the decision to ultimately be made where it should be – on the track.