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IndyCar Looks For A New Era Of Innovation
- Updated: September 21, 2016
2016 IndyCar Champion – Simon Pagenaud. [Andy Clary Photo]
by Allan Brewer
If you like the current look of IndyCar’s workhorse DW12 chassis in its current Honda or Chevrolet aerodynamic configuration, rejoice . . . because it isn’t going to change for awhile. If you don’t . . . well, maybe we have some interesting engineering points under that bodywork to interest you.
With the announcement that IndyCar is freezing the aerodynamic development for both Honda and Chevy in the 2017 competition year there is now room for each team to put more time and effort into the chassis and traditional running gear of their machinery. The hope is to direct more money toward the road-going prowess of the machinery and less into wind-tunnel and fluid dynamics studies of the cars.
It’s also a quiet acknowledgment that high-speed oval racing is drawing closer to the twilight as road and track competition emerges as a more likely and safer open-wheel racing paradigm in the future.
The areas of greatest potential for IndyCar competitors appear to be in the brake systems, wheels and suspension technology (which may include traction control and active chassis manipulation). Other areas include engine and power management technology and electronic driver aids including collision avoidance measures.
In time, we may see a “universal car” in IndyCar competition. That, it appears, is the eventual aim of the series according to Jay Frye, president of IndyCar operations and competition. “”The goal of is to have a great-looking, less aero-dependent car, with more potential for mechanical grip and downforce and to incorporate all the latest safety enhancements.” In theory, the “universal car” could appear as early as 2018 with the next competition season acting as a transition year into the next IndyCar iteration.
But with the promise of financial responsibility that a spec car brings, the opportunity for unique and significant advancement in technology is diminished. Think about how different our present would be if Ray Harroun’s simple backwards-facing mirror had been disallowed because it wasn’t “spec” in 1911!
IndyCar has always been about innovation: a hundred years ago it was the kind of innovation that a creative mechanic could deliver in his garage, but has now become an exercise in computational power and design firepower. The bad news is it is that design and technical execution are more exotic than ever, but the good news is the digital resources available to effect an incremental improvement on the automotive status quo are greater in number than ever.
Finding a balance between that innovation (and its expense) and the reassurance of a standard car (with its fixed costs) remains the challenge for IndyCar as it moves forward. Can the teams innovate at a level sufficient to make measurable improvements in performance without touching their aero packages? Can IndyCar resist the urging of the well-healed teams to exercise innovation that is competitively crippling? And can the little guys of the racing world create and bring to fruition ideas that level the playing field for David vs Goliath?
These are the questions that we will see moving into the next couple of years of IndyCar competition. It should be an interesting and compelling look at automotive advancement into the end of the second decade of the new millennium.