Welcome to the first of my blogs over the next 18 months as we prepare for one of the most important moves in IndyCar racing history. No one needs to be told how vital it is that we get this right. But it's also important that we're as transparent as possible. OK, I won't be giving you the precise price of an A-arm or the exact dimensions of a rear-wheel flick-up, but as fans of the sport, we recognize that we have to convey that the process continues on, whether or not you've heard anything – positive or negative! – about it in the last week. Trust me on this: Given the time constraints, everyone involved has his or her thumb on the push-to-pass button…
I took the job of Project Manager for the 2012 IndyCar because I'd been involved through the processes of the ICONIC committee from the beginning. If I hadn't have been, I probably would have turned down the opportunity, because I wouldn't have been well enough prepared. But I had all the information I needed to get to this point, I knew how certain decisions were reached and why, I knew time lines and I knew the basic parameters. Having that was a good jump-start.
It also helps to have been through a similar process before with the Panoz DP01 Champ Car, although there are obviously things I look back on that I'd have done differently. The most critical thing in this situation now is that there's even more at stake – there is only one series at the top of the U.S. open-wheel tree. We're not competing against anyone else, the car has to compete on all types of tracks and we must involve teams and the drivers throughout the process. (Managing that last bit is a time-consuming job but it's got to be done.)
Dallara Automobili and IndyCar are working together on the new car. We have some dimensional aspects that are pretty fixed in our minds. At this precise moment, we're focusing on the cockpit area, particularly trying to understand where bulkheads need to be, how the suspension mounts to the chassis and, how we can make the tub accommodate drivers as short as EJ Viso and as tall as Justin Wilson. As you can imagine, there is a huge amount of "adjustability" required for the steering wheel, pedals, and driver protection requirements. Then consider that this year we added a mandatory three-inch padding underneath the driver's butt along with changes behind their back and to the headrest area, and you'll see the equation becomes a little tricky to manage. But it's a matter of working through it and recognizing that driver safety does not have to be compromised for comfort.
The team owners are the people spending the money on the new car, so we have to appreciate their concerns. Having said that, the ICONIC committee evaluated many aspects of the new car prior to coming to a decision on it, so a lot of matters that have arisen more recently are ones that we'd already discussed and come to a conclusion on based on a set of parameters. I think the most critical thing is that people need to be involved as we move forward and this project is not something that we can just keep to ourselves. The series, the teams and the drivers need to move forward as one. To be honest, acknowledging that and acting upon it doesn't really change a lot – it's not like we weren't thinking in those terms anyway. Somebody else will always have a valid point or make a good case for something that we need to consider, and we'd be stupid not to listen to them because there are a lot of smart people in the IndyCar paddock. Utilizing their brains to build the best product we can makes total sense.
Price-wise, we know from the team's what they're currently paying for things like suspension, where it's being built, what kind of lead time their supplier needs, etc. My job, I believe, is to analyze those things, put them together and, with pretty recent experience with the Panoz, I know where we should be on target price. We can ask vendors to supply a product and guarantee them long-term business – four years is a long time in racing – to be an exclusive supplier to the series. This allows us to agree upon prices that work for all. We won't set the prices at a point where the vendor can't do business – if there's so much pressure and so little margin for the vendor that we're going to run them out of business, that does none of us any good. However, gone are the days when parts were marked up by 30-40 percent. We can't accept that anymore. It must be a small mark up with sensible business practices. So it's important that we're driving the ship when it comes to components and vendors. We are representing the teams and the series and our relationship with Dallara is such that we can ensure everyone is treated fairly.
We're also lucky enough to be in a position to ensure that the end product is first class. When we design this vehicle, it's important to remember at all times that this is an IndyCar, that it's still the highest level of open-wheel racing in North America and it costs money to go racing. It needs to be challenging for drivers and teams, so as we look at containing operating costs, we have to tread a fine line. However, one difference with this vehicle is from road and street course to oval tracks, teams will be able to utilize common components such as suspension, rotors, calipers, etc. Obviously they'll need to have flexibility between roads and ovals but, in general, a lot of these components will be common. Front uprights, for example, may be made so they can fit to both left and right sides and the top suspension arms can, too. That makes it far simpler for the teams and effectively can reduce the inventory teams need to carry. And also bear in mind, when everyone's using the same mechanical components, they don't need to be lightweight or be made of thin walled tubing: those things become irrelevant. The priority is that they're reliable and durable.
For any vendor – whether it's Dallara or third party vendors – if they're going to be in the position of supplying the series, there is quite a bit of baggage that comes with that, and it's not just cost of the component or the initial build quantity. It's also about availability, support and being able to react in a time of need while delivering a quality product for the term of the agreement. So I'm not saying that one vendor is going to build all the suspension parts: I think we need to be smart in how we go about it. There are many good vendors around capable of doing what we're asking, particularly in the USA.
Other than aero kits it's yet to be defined what, if any, components teams will have the option of producing themselves. When you start evaluating those options, the parameters will be pushed to the limit and we must be able to police them. So let's take one thing at a time: first, we've got to focus on getting over the initial investment of the new cars, and then let's focus on where we're going in the future. Based on how the series is doing, they need to then decide when the time is right to open up the regulations. Whatever direction IndyCar elects to go with the regs, they must be transparent, otherwise some people feel like there's something underhanded going on, then all hell breaks loose and suddenly you waste half your time administering nothing. So you're better to be transparent and create a system that teams have direct access to.
We now have enough engine-related dimensional information to continue down the road with the structuring of the vehicle, and we're continuing to define the engine regulations. We'll need to know in the next 30-45 days whether there are any real opportunities for additional engine manufacturer participation as soon as 2012. Before anyone can really jump in, they need to know the parameters. We must also define the “box” dimensions of the bodywork which need to be open enough to entice constructors to produce unique styles. If the boxes are very tight, then the cars are all going to look the same, and we'll end up in the same situation as now, where even the hardcore fans have to look very carefully to see differences. What's the point in that?
I'm pleased to say there has been a significant amount of interest in supplying aero kits but being interested and actually signing on the dotted line are two different things. Our job is to provide a complete set of guidelines to attract other companies to get involved – not just in constructing a body kit, but getting truly involved in partnering IndyCar. This series is more than just a new car: for new companies to get involved, they will want to know from Randy where he expects IndyCar to be in a few years.
The gearbox manufacturer hasn't yet been officially decided, but you'd have to make a pretty good case to move away from our current provider, Xtrac, who has a base in Indianapolis and has a proven quality product. Since the paddle-shift gearbox was introduced, Xtrac's parts sales have been reduced 45 percent, and engine over-revs are almost non-existent now. So compared to where the teams were a few years ago, there has been an incredible gain in reliability. I've seen what quantity of components Xtrac has sold to teams over the past couple of years, and you'd be blown away by how small the sales are. So while we've not yet confirmed the manufacturer, potential rivals need to make a good case for ousting a quality product that has been proven so well. The decision will not be based solely on money either, because that quickly becomes irrelevant if you're blowing gearboxes, there's more to it such as technical support and the ability to solve any issues that may arise in a timely manner. So it's fair to say they're our leading candidate, but at the same time, I've got to keep them honest otherwise I wouldn't be doing my job.
As far as testing the car is concerned, it will be September or October 2011. (I'm sure Honda is planning on testing the engines before then, though.) A lot of things have to come in line and a lot of manufacturers have to deliver on time to make that possible, but we're steering the ship, so I don't see why we can't make that happen. One of the big mistakes we made with the Panoz DP01 was not thrashing it hard enough initially; we focused on reliability. Once we got the top Champ Car drivers pushing it to its limit, that showed us what we still needed to do. So I think it's critical the 2012 IndyCar is thrashed very hard by current, fast drivers at some point. Don't get me wrong – we'll still have to pound around for basic reliability first – but at the end, I'd like to see it pushed to the limit, and to do that, we need drivers like Will Power, Tony Kanaan and Ryan Briscoe on the ragged edge. OK, that's not a priority as of September 2010, but that's what we'll need to happen.
Well, thanks for reading, and I look forward to giving you another update soon. Next month I'll be in Italy fitting a couple of drivers in monocoques, working on how to get out of the car quicker and finding out whether Justin Wilson can fit more comfortably without beating his body up so much. In the meantime, the work continues…