IndyCar's on-again, off-again relationship with aero kits has been maddening for supporters of the custom bodywork concept since the idea was first floated.
Beginning in 2010, formal plans have been announced on three separate occasions, with the most recent coming in May by IndyCar's new president of competition Derrick Walker (ABOVE). And with the release of the latest set of aero kit regulations just prior to the Mid-Ohio round, IndyCar's engine manufacturers have felt confident enough about Walker's plan, leading to their decision to move forward with the design and production of bespoke bodies for 2015.
“Over the last few months there's been a number of draft regulations and there've been refinements on previous versions IndyCar released to us – what we've referred to as the ‘final version,'” said Honda Performance Development technical director Roger Griffiths. “So based on that, that's what we're working to, that's what we eloquently referred to as mashing the throttle on the project. That's how we're approaching it.
“We don't expect any significant changes from what we have today. I'm sure that when we get into the details of exactly what we're doing, there's going to be some questions and some clarifications on, 'Is this allowed?' or, 'Is that allowed?' But the regulations as they've been presented are in place for us to go with, and I'm not hearing any sort of noises that there might be serious changes.”
Chevy IndyCar program manager Chris Berube confirmed the brand is continuing to develop its aero kit behind the scenes while working with the series to button up the final elements of the regulations.
“We're working really closely with IndyCar to come up with something that we can all work with,” he said. “We're close to that. We've been a supporter of it from the beginning. Trying to make sure that set of regulations is fair and something we feel we can compete well in. So we're close to that point. There'll be some decisions made here relatively quickly that we will make public.”
Berube credited Walker and the IndyCar technical team for bringing a more mindful approach to the costs associated to aero kit production, but says there's work to be done on balancing the costs to bring the kits to market with a reasonable sale price to recover some of the investment.
“Derrick definitely brings a very broad perspective to the table and we appreciate that,” said Berube. “He's quick to always point out who it's going to cost money to, whether it's the manufacturer or owner. So that has improved. He's got that broad perspective.
"There's two phases of costs to this. “There's the cost of development, and then there's the cost to produce itself. One of those is OK. The other is clearly on the shoulder of the manufacturers. From a pure business standpoint, this is not a money-making situation. But we're in it to make events better and make racing better, to make the brand identity the difference out there.”
Allowing manufacturers to create their own IndyCar bodywork came from the desire to establish visual variety and enhanced branding. In kind, Chevy and Honda will exploit every area of performance available as their respective kits are developed, and the marketing benefits of having brand-specific styling will also receive plenty of attention from both camps.
Battles over which side – the aerodynamicists or the stylists – will have the most influence on the final shape of the aero kits will surely fall in favor of the aero teams, but questions remain on how the custom bodywork will serve multiple masters.
Looking at the four elements an aero kit should contain, they need to win the aerodynamic battle, distinguish themselves from the other aero kits, give each engine manufacturer a distinct visual identity and provide enough real estate for teams to sell to sponsors. If you're unsure of how all of those goals will be met, Roger Griffiths says you're not alone.
“We have another 19 months before we start to see the aero kits in action, and we're going to spend a lot of money between now and then on the R&D side of things,” he explained. “And the story is that the R&D – the investment in R&D – is justified by the right to brand the car. How you actually quantify the benefit for branding the car, I'm not sure. It's a Honda model, a Honda body, but a Dallara chassis. Is it then called a Honda-Honda?
“Does it mean we can have a bigger sticker on the side of the car? We've also had a discussion with the teams over encroaching into sponsorships. So I struggle with that argument a little bit. At the end of the day, the R&D has been invested into producing the best aero kit for the races. So if it means Honda winning more races and Honda winning more championships, then I think it's a worthwhile investment.”
Berube says Chevy's aero kit will probably follow a similar four-element path, with performance taking top priority.
“This is something we're going to have to develop,” he noted. “It's not going to have a bow-tie-on-the-grill kind of thing. So we're going to have to develop a brand in IndyCar for Chevrolet by being successful with this aero kit. If there's anything that people see in it that's Chevrolet, we'll do that for a surprise but don't expect to see a grill on this thing. No badges…”
In order to accelerate their aero kit projects, Chevy and Honda have utilized key partners to spearhead the R&D efforts. HPD has a longstanding relationship with England's Wirth Research, and will rely on a joint effort between both companies to produce their aero kits.
Chevy, through its Michigan-based factory partners at Pratt & Miller, will also collaborate on its bodywork, and has added new staff members dedicated to its 2015 aero package.
“We did draw upon the industry to supplement our technical partners,” Berube confirmed. “Pratt & Miller has some very talented people already in-house but we did go out and seek some expertise from areas like Formula 1 to help us do a lot of our scale model testing in the Penske scale model tunnel. So we've drawn upon their years of experience.
“It's been a very collaborative approach, which is consistent with how Chevrolet operates in a lot of different series. We hope at the end of the day that not having tunnel vision but having a broad vision will benefit our Chevrolet teams out here.”
At the root of the exercise, aero kit manufacturers will be tasked with making wholesale changes to the exterior of the Dallara DW12 chassis in order to find more downforce and less drag. The rules allow relative freedom with the sidepods and engine cover – the biggest pieces that can be altered that will change the look of the car, and with the required use of twin turbos starting in 2014, Chevy and Honda will have the same air inlets needs to feed their engines.
Could that result in the current, spec overhead intake being ditched in favor of a low-slung engine cover? Could the turbo inlets be moved to the sidepods? Or could other solutions be in the works?
“I think at the end of the day, performance on the racetrack will dominate whatever we come up with,” Griffiths insisted. “Whichever gives us the best aero result, and there are all sorts of different solutions. If you do a low-lining engine cover and then you have a pair of snorkels sticking up in the air stream, is that aerodynamically more efficient than a higher engine cover taking in the air?
“I'm sure both manufacturers are looking at one or the other. So for me it's about the best technical solution. It's not necessarily about what is the best-looking car, it's about what's the best performing car.”
Griffiths closed the conversation by posing an interesting question – one that the IndyCar Series would be wise to consider before its manufacturers get too far down the road and spend more millions on developing aero kits.
“You could argue, if we look at it from purely a commercial reason for promoting aero kits and attempting to brand the cars with our own bodies, if we'd actually be better off taking all the money that we invested into aero kits and buy a better TV package. Would we actually get more exposure from that? It's something to think about, isn't it?”