Give New Ideas A Chance To Fail

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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.

George Phillips

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10 Responses to “Give New Ideas A Chance To Fail”

  1. I would like to see the rulebook opened up as well, but the teams just can’t afford it. Heck, they can barely afford the current formula. I fear that if the rulebook were opened, we would see grid sized between 12 and 15 for each race. That’s terrible. The teams have to be able to raise more capital (through sponsorship). Right now the TV numbers are still too low and race attendants are too low (except for the 500 of course). Like was mentioned here a week or so ago, there just arent enough fans watching Indycar these days to for the teams to get sponsors to spend more money. Until that changes, we will necessarily see restrictive rulebooks in order to keep respectable field sizes.

  2. Aerokits (the concept) seemed like a great idea at first. What happened? Team owners complain of the expense and “for what?” they ask. To me the so called “boxes” are too restrictive. The flaw IMO points to the ICONIC committees original idea of Dallara or , having one sole chassis supplier building the safety cell, tub, cockpit, whatever you want to call it. That ship has long since sailed. For all we know, IndyCar could be long gone without Dallara so, we all have to live within reality and that reality is indeed much different than the 90’s. It must not be profitable enough anymore for a chassis supplier to face competition within a series. If my memory serves me right when bids were being accepted for IndyCar, both Swift and Dallara and possible others(?) wanted sole supplier status.

  3. DZ-groundedeffects Says:

    For me, this single matter (design freedom/competition and the economical and philosophical debates surrounding it), is THE paramount issue of Indycar as it has been since inception.

    This issue is the true heart of Indycar.

    The degree of freedom of design vs.
    the philosophy of competition vs.
    the cost economy to compete.

    Ever thus, Indycar.

    I suspect a survey of the factions essential to the life of the sport…

    Fans and potential fans would reveal, in an ideal scenario they would demand the highest degree of freedom, the most open competition, with little regard for cost.
    (maximizing enjoyment value: seeing something of great interest/incredible entertainment that they cannot see anywhere else – most open philosophy).

    What might be a sponsor’s ideal Indycar?
    The most exposure and being aligned with an event/sport that best promotes the image that sponsor wants to project, for the least amount of cost.
    (maximizing exposure value: being in a place of great interest, where exposure is of greatest value – most open philosophy at the lowest cost).

    What might a racing team see as an ideal?
    The lowest risk of being noncompetitive, with some freedom of advantage-building, at the lowest cost of competition.
    (maximizing ability to win: being in a place of economically ‘vigorous’ competition, where the best is rewarded – lowest cost to compete from marginally open philosophy).

    So if we can leap to assume those basic “survey results” would be fairly accurate, in creating a place for all of these entities to be satisfied to the highest degree, how might Indycar best position the sport to fulfill these disparate factions?

    • Carburetor Says:

      Please send your resume plus your comment post as your cover letter to Indycar for their CEO position! Very well said….

      • DZ-groundedeffects Says:

        Wow! Well, thank you. Not sure I’d want to apply honestly, BUT I’m all for open and thorough exchange of ideas by ALL those with an interest in seeing the sport not just survive but thrive and grow…. fans (end-user) included.

    • What he said. I got nothing. (Except: More horsepower)

  4. James T Suel Says:

    Iam against this Honda had the same chance Chevy did. This is nothing but racing welfare! It does not matter what kind of rules you have, the guy with the most money is going to be on top. Look around its the three big teams and yes every now and then a small team does a great job and is competive. KEEP THE SAFETY rules for construction of the cars, otherwise make it simple lets have a small ruel book. And give them horsepower!

  5. I can’t add anymore to the comment section than what my pal DZ has offered. I am in total agreement with George in that the teams should be allowed to tweek the aerokit to their advantage and I am surprised that this has never been on the table.

  6. To add a bit to your history lesson George – Many of us remember Grant King and his Kingfish cars which looked identical to the McLarens or Eagles when those cars dominated. King’s cars, though, never quite performed like the cars from which they were copied.
    That may be due to his extravagant way of gaining his information upon which to create his copies.
    He would just casually walk up to a car that interested him and set a soda can on the ground near the front wing, or side pod, or maybe on the rear wing for a few seconds. Someone would take a photo of the can and the area of the car near it.
    Knowing the exact measurements of the can, he and his fabricators used those dimensions to determine dimensions for the various parts of the copies, filled in the blanks with their mechanical knowledge and, voila, a Kingfish was born.
    Maybe if he had had a wind tunnel…

  7. RHR really was disadvantaged at the end of the year. Rahal was never competative. What a load of bull. Yay IndyCar!

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