Aero Kits – Right Concept At The Wrong Time
Note – Every now and then, I welcome a guest-blogger to this site. I’ve welcomed many different guest-bloggers over the years, but probably none as frequently as Paul Dalbey, formerly of More Front Wing. Paul always has an interesting perspective on the Verizon IndyCar Series, and more times than not – we tend to agree on most things. Today is no exception – GP
As the 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series draws near and the era of the manufacturer aero kits will soon come to and end, I think it prudent to look back at the project and determine, with the luxury of hindsight, if they were really a good idea or just an misconceived notion.
When the INDYCAR ICONIC Committee introduced the car of the future in July 2010, the car that would eventually be dubbed the DW-12, very few people seemed to be genuinely excited about the results following months of study and build-up. Many fans wanted the return to chassis competition and were excited at the prospect of Lola, Swift, and Dallara battling it out on the track. The chassis manufacturers themselves were only interested in supplying the entire field and claimed the economics couldn’t work if the field was divided amongst several suppliers.
Many of the owners wanted to go an entirely different direction, throwing their support behind the hugely controversial Delta Wing project that was the brainchild of former Target Chip Ganassi Racing engineer Ben Bowlby. (Of course, while several owners wanted to go that way, a massive majority of IndyCar fans wanted absolutely nothing to do with it.) What all owners agreed upon was that cost reductions were paramount to any solution to the 2012 chassis enigma.
In the end, what everyone got was a compromise that was received with lukewarm (at best) enthusiasm amongst fans, owners, and drivers. Long-time INDYCAR partner Dallara was given the contract to develop the “safety cell” while body dressings, to soon be known as Aero Kits, would be open to any manufacturer wishing to commission and badge a car. INDYCAR claimed that these aero kits could be designed, built, and badged by anyone, be it Honda, Boeing, or the University of Illinois College of Engineering, so long as they fit within regulated “boxes” and were sold at a cost not to exceed $75,000.
It was a compromise that was developed and delivered with the very best of intentions. It checked most of the boxes that everyone wanted — theoretically reduced costs to owners by utilizing a single chassis solution and appeased fans who wanted visual differentiation amongst the competitors. Had such a proposal been put forward 20 years prior when open-wheel racing was a very different breed of entertainment, it may well have worked and the future of open-wheel racing might have developed dramatically differently. As it is, the proposal came in an era when the aero kits would eventually become a victim of their own success.
During the entirety of open-wheel racing until The Split and the introduction of spec-racing in the IRL, fans were accustomed to continual innovation, not only on an annual basis but sometimes on a week-to-week basis. Fueled by massive sponsorship dollars, much of which came from Big Tobacco, partners like Lola, Reynard, Cosworth, and Ilmor were constantly developing new trick parts and technologies without the limitations of regulations like engine mileage requirements and aero development freezes.
The game was to win at all cost, and if 3/4 of the field got left behind because one team struck gold with the right chassis and engine combination, then it was up to the rest of the partners and teams to figure out how to catch up. When Al Unser, Jr. won at Cleveland in 1994 by 23 seconds over Nigel Mansell, the industry recognized what a masterful performance it was by Little Al, his superior Penske PC-23, and the Ilmor power plant. It was a different world at the time when fans and competitors were accustomed to such routs during races and nail-biting finishes were the exception rather than the norm.
Fast forward 20 years and the whole landscape of racing is greatly changed. No longer do such finishes make the grade as racing as a whole has become more entertainment and less competition. For better or worse, fans have become spoiled with spec racing to expect close on track action. At the same time, sponsors, having become more and more difficult to find in the post-split era, aren’t willing to throw millions and millions of dollars toward teams and entrants that have little to no chance of even being competitive, receive little coverage, and return virtually no return on their investment. Like it or not, that’s simply the way racing is in the current era.
Though the ICONIC Committee sought to have aero kits immediately introduced and ready for competition in 2012, that plan soon went off the rails. Initial performance projections failed to be met and test drivers (most notably the late Dan Wheldon) claimed the car was edgy, temperamental, and unpredictable. Delays to improve the overall performance of the chassis soon led to postponement of the aero kits until 2013.
The delay then stretched into 2014 due to economic concerns stemming from the realization that the DW-12 was in fact not the cost-saving chassis the owners had been led to believe it would be. The common belief at the time was that the kits would be shelved indefinitely and eventually abandoned altogether. Though the standard DW-12 kit from Dallara produced spectacular racing on ovals and street courses, fans still clamored for visual differentiation among the cars. And they had the ear of new INDYCAR President Derrick Walker.
Soon after his ascension to the INDYCAR throne, Walker rekindled the aero kits, much to the dismay of several car owners, most notably Michael Andretti. Andretti was adamantly opposed to the idea of aero kits, believing them to be nothing but a giant money pit that would divert valuable funds and resources from the engine manufacturers (Honda/HPD and Chevrolet/Ilmor).
Furthermore, Andretti believed that aero kits would actually be detrimental to the quality of racing fans had come to expect in the three years since the introduction of the DW-12 and provide very little investment on return in terms of fan engagement or interest. With history now in the rearview mirror, we can see that Michael Andretti was indeed mostly right in his predictions.
When the kits were finally introduced for the 2015 Verizon IndyCar Series season, it was obvious from the outset that Chevrolet had a distinct advantage. Chevrolet had won the engine manufacturer title each year since the return of competition in 2012, but the gap widened considerably in 2015.
Honda finally scored some late season victories, but the manufacturer competition was really over long before the checkered flag fell at Sonoma Raceway. Much to Honda’s chagrin (and to their teams), a controversial Month of May ended up with only two Hondas in the top 11 position and neither of those got within a sniff of victory.
In an off-season attempt to equal the playing field, INDYCAR allowed Honda to make major upgrades to their aero kit, a move that was publicly accepted as good for the sport but left many within the series, especially within the Chevrolet camp, feeling cheated and victimized for their success.
Rightly so, INDYCAR understood that it could not afford to have teams within the Honda camp showing up every weekend racing with one hand tied behind their backs. With sponsorship dollars exceedingly difficult to attain, it just didn’t make economic sense to risk car counts for the “purity of the sport.” (I realize how much that statement alone will ruffle feathers and upset the IndyCar purists. I look forward to your comments below.)
INDYCAR was forced to act to maintain as much parity as they could without completely devolving the advantage Chevrolet and kit designer Pratt & Miller had gained through engineering superiority. What resulted was a Honda aero kit that took many design cues from the Chevrolet kit and abandoned most of the aspects that provided differentiation between manufacturers. Honda moved toward Chevrolet. Chevrolet moved toward Honda. And fans were once again looking at cars that mostly looked the same. It was a stark contrast from how CART handled parity in the 1990s.
When Dan Gurney’s All-American Racers returned to action in 1996, their Mk-V chassis was mated with a significantly underpowered Toyota engine. The results were nothing short of disastrous, garnering only a pair of top 10 finishes in 26 starts. AAR abandoned the Eagle chassis for 1997 for a more reliable Reynard though still powered by the underperforming Toyota engine. An all-new Eagle chassis would debut in 1998 with a slightly updated version taking to the track in 1999. In 56 total starts during those two seasons, the All-American Racers and their Eagle chassis scored but a single top 10. ONE!
By the end of the 1999 season, CART failed to throw AAR a lifeline to achieve any sort of parity with Reynard, Lola and Swift, and the plug was pulled on the Eagle chassis. (As a footnote, the Eagle chassis did somehow manage to score more points than the Penske chassis that year, in what would also be the last year in the glorious history of the Penske PC series Indy cars.)
Conversely, while the Eagle chassis floundered and went by the wayside, the engine that pushed the sled, the Toyota made remarkable gains after several years of futility. Though AAR was unable to achieve any success with the engine, Scott Pruett put a Toyota-powered Reynard on the pole for the ill-fated 1999 Marlboro 500 at California Speedway with a lap at over 235 mph. A year later, Toyota had progressed enough to lure Target Chip Ganassi Racing to its stable, and Juan Montoya rewarded them with the first of five victories for Toyota in 2000. It was a remarkable journey for Toyota, who, through hard work and engineering, overcame a massive initial deficit to become the most coveted engine in the series by 2002.
Had the DW-12 and its aero kits come along in 1994, I truly think it could have been a successful concept. There was plenty of money in the sport to fully develop the Dallara safety cell, or the tub, and the sport was still in a time where engineering ingenuity was rewarded with several years of unfettered successes. Fans were more open to see road races won by 30 seconds and seeing only the top three drivers on the lead lap on an oval.
As it turned out, the aero kit will probably be little more than a footnote in racing history that is unlikely to have much in the way of a lasting impact other than to say “at least they tried.” Millions of dollars were poured into a theory that didn’t significantly increase fan excitement and by year two yielded very little in the way of product differentiation. Only time will tell if the next era of Indy car racing, that of the new universal body kit starting in 2018, is more successful than the original Dallara kit (2012-2014) and the manufacturer-designed aero kits (2015-2017).