Give New Ideas A Chance To Fail
Honda finally got an answer on their aero kits for 2016. For the most part, they should be happy – although they didn’t quite get the answer they were looking for. IndyCar decided they would enforce Rule 9.3 which states: “In the event that an aero kit is not competitive to such extent that it would be detrimental to the Verizon IndyCar Series, IndyCar may permit in its sole discretion approved suppliers to implement modifications to their respective aero kits.”
In a nutshell, the series took Scott Dixon’s championship winning Chevy and Graham Rahal’s top-finishing Honda to the wind-tunnel for a comparison. What they determined was that the Honda aero kit actually did put Honda to a competitive disadvantage to the Chevy on road & street courses as well as short ovals. But they could not determine that Honda suffered any aerodynamic disadvantage with their design when compared to the Chevy on superspeedways.
Personally, I’m glad Mark Miles and IndyCar made the decision they did. Some will argue that Chevy did its homework and brought the superior product to battle and won, while Honda screwed up. It’s more complicated than that…or is it?
I always thought it was absurd that the design pieces had to be locked in and frozen in the first place. It’s always a dangerous thing when a crusty old goat like myself starts comparing eras, but that won’t stop me from doing it. Remember at the start of the 1994 season in Surfer’s Paradise, no teams had the dorsal fin on the back of the cowling. For the second race at Phoenix, the three Marlboro Team Penske cars of Emerson Fittipaldi, Paul Tracy and Al Unser, Jr. all showed up with dorsal fins on each car. Tracy won the pole, Fittipaldi won the race and Little Al finished second.
When the series showed up one week later at Long Beach, there were a few more dorsal wings showing from other team’s cars. By the time the Month of May rolled around, I’ll bet two-thirds of the cars in the garage area had sprouted the unsightly fins. Some were discreet, while others were huge. There were no rules saying that aerodynamic pieces could not be added or tinkered with, regardless if it was a Lola, a Reynard or a Penske. As it turns out, the ’94 Lola was a dog and the Reynard was still in its infancy and was run by only one team – Ganassi. So Penske probably would’ve run away with the title anyway.
It’s very popular to say that racing is all about innovation. I’ve used that phrase myself. But in all honesty, racing is all about trial and error. Some things work and some don’t. It’s that simple. I guess if it works, it’s innovation. If it doesn’t, it’s trial and error.
The story of the Sumar Special at Indianapolis is famous for what didn’t work. It showed up in early May of 1955 with streamlined body panels, fenders and a canopy. The aerodynamic and streamlined design would surely make it slip through the air as opposed to the bulky snub-nosed roadsters with exposed tires. Driver Jimmy Daywalt did away with the canopy because he feared what might happen in case of fire. The car was initially slow. What they found was that the more body panels they stripped off, the faster it went. Daywalt eventually qualified an ugly, but more conventional looking car seventeenth and finished ninth.
The famous Smokey Yunick sidecar is another example of something that made sense on the drawing board, but failed to meet expectations on the track. Yes, it was highly innovative – but it never really panned out.
The point is, not until now was the rulebook so rigid that new ideas weren’t even given a chance to fail.
In the manufactures battle, I pull for Honda. I’ve driven Hondas for over thirty years and currently drive one. Honda has been involved in American open-wheel racing since 1994 and has been a vital partner to the Verizon IndyCar Series since their arrival in 2003. They stayed with the series for 2006 and beyond, when Chevy and Toyota bailed on the series after the 2005 season. So to say I support Honda is putting it mildly.
That being said, Honda failed in 2015. They went a different direction than Chevy did and they failed. They got their act together as much as they could within the rules to at least salvage some dignity in the second half of the season. But 2015 was a disaster, so it is not being unkind to say Honda failed. It’s a fact.
But what I never understood is why they weren’t able to make substantial changes. OK, I get it that it is a cost-savings measure to lock in the overall design but I never liked Rule 9.2 which allows each manufacturer to develop three of the nine eligible homologation boxes prior to the 2016 season.
I would like to see more decision making power left to the individual teams. Why not have the manufacturer come up with the basic aero kit design, but allow the teams much more freedom to tweak all nine design areas from week to week, just as they might alter tire pressures, gear heights or suspension tweaks.
The way it was for 2015, Honda came out with a dud kit. Consequently, each of their teams were saddled with the dud kit for the entire season. When Penske blew everyone away in 1994, it was perceived it was because of the dorsal fin on the back. Everyone figured they needed a fin too. For the next few seasons, practically all cars in CART had a dorsal fin that was fabricated by each team. Some chose not to have a fin at all. Newman/Haas had very small, almost undetectable fins. Team Rahal had very large fins. Ganassi had fins that even had a horizontal strip in the top of the vertical fin.
Did any of them serve any function? I don’t know. I’m not an engineer. But I do know that by 2000, few teams were running the fin at all. I thought we had seen the last of the dorsal fin until they made a surprising comeback on the Honda aero kit for 2015.
The point is, decisions like this were left up to the individual team; not Lola, Reynard or Swift. The engine manufacturers didn’t have a say in the matter and neither did the sanctioning body. The teams made the call. By the way things played out, it looks as though the teams that never jumped on the bandwagon probably made the right call.
Again, I get it that Rule 9.2 is a cost-saving measure. These measures are put in to save the teams from themselves. The theory is that Penske and Ganassi will spend money on wind-tunnel testing and all sorts of R&D, the Dale Coyne’s and Bryan Herta’s of the world won’t be able to spend the money to keep up, thus furthering the gap between the haves and the have-nots.
But can history not repeat itself? Why not let the big-money teams do the research and then copy their ideas? That’s what happened with the dorsal fin in 1994. Roger Penske came up with the idea of a fin. He spent the money to develop it. Soon after, Dick Simon had fins on his cars. Do we really think Dick Simon did wind-tunnel testing and development on his fin? No, he just looked at it and had his team come up with something similar to bolt onto his cars.
Rather than have such a restrictive rulebook that saddles the aero kit developers and all of their respective teams with a dud, why not allow more major tweaks to take place throughout the season? Like most sports, this is a copycat sport. Let the Penske’s and Ganassi’s do the aero kit R&D, and the smaller teams can copy the results as best they can. Remember – it’s all trial and error, anyway.
That’s my pipe dream anyway. It’ll be written off as too expensive for the smaller teams, all the while keeping this pretty much a spec series. I guess I’m wrong, but I thought the whole idea of the aero kits was to get away from a spec series. Silly me.
But given the way the current rulebook is written, I think IndyCar made the right call. It made for not-so-great racing to watch a battle among the Chevys most weekends. While Chevy should be able to reap the benefits for getting it right, it does the series no good to have only half the field competitive.
And some will scream at this statement, but Honda had to be appeased. They have been too valuable for too long to have them leave the series in a huff over something like this. Quite honestly, I’m not sure that IndyCar could survive the departure of Honda – not the way things are right now with the series. This was a difficult minefield for IndyCar to navigate, but I think they worked their way carefully through it and eventually made the right call. Now maybe they can loosen things up for the teams to make a few aero decisions in the future.