The phrase, “It looks like it was designed by a committee!” is seldom a comment of kindness. Applied to everything from a duckbill platypus to the Ford Edsel to numerous examples of bad architecture, it implies that the whole is far less than the sum of its parts.
While every modern racecar is essentially designed by a committee – aerodynamicists, engineers, stylists, engine manufacturers and tire manufacturers all work together to try to achieve speed, safety, cost-effectiveness and beauty in one package – Swift Engineering has taken it a step further in designing what it hopes is the car that will fill the grid when the IZOD IndyCar Series opens its 2012 season.
And although racecar development is usually done in strict secrecy, as the Indy Racing League goes through the process of deciding what the replacement for the aging Dallara chassis should be, the competing manufacturers – Swift, Dallara Automobili, Lola Cars, DeltaWing Racing Cars and BAT Engineering – have all shared their designs with the public. In some cases they have offered more than one design, or allowed the fans to follow along with the process.
That's where the “committee” comes into play. Swift's design team says they have tried to involve every stakeholder – including the IRL, Honda and Firestone, but also the teams, sponsors and the fans, who ultimately decide whether the on-track product is worth their attention – in the process as it evolves the car from its initial design.
“Typically we do these design iterations in house,” says Swift Senior Engineer Neil Roberts. “But for this program we decided to involve everyone we possibly could and make this more of a team effort. We certainly have our own ideas of what a racecar should look like, and so does everybody else. We're willing to listen to input from all sources.”
Swift has given RACER.com an exclusive look inside the process of evolution of what it hopes will be the next Indy car. And the reality is that the different manufacturers are likely competing against each other now, rather than on the track later. The direction the design team is taking is leading them to the production of a spec chassis – not necessarily because they want it that way, but because they say the only way to achieve the cost containment the league wants is with a one-make series.
Swift Chief Scientist Mark Page, like many open-wheel fans, fondly remembers the glory days of CART when Swift, Penske, Lola, Reynard and Eagle all competed against each other with Toyota, Honda, Mercedes-Benz and Ford engines on Firestone and Goodyear tires. That competitive spirit goes back to the San Clemente, Calif., firm's beginnings, when it produced a fairly radical Formula Ford chassis for 1983 that soon dominated the market and is still competitive nearly 30 years later. The company went on to produce a variety of winning club and entry-level pro chassis for a variety of categories before building a Champ Car that won on its first outing at Homestead in 1997, with Michael Andretti at the wheel (below).
Both the company and the racing world have changed significantly in the past 13 years. While Swift is still obviously heavily involved in motorsports, having been the sole supplier of the hopefully-on-temporary-hiatus professional Formula Atlantic series chassis since 1998 and now the chassis supplier for the Formula Nippon Series in Japan, much of its business now involves aerospace, including producing unmanned aerial vehicles and making composite pieces for other manufacturers. The wind tunnel next door is also kept busy, not only testing automotive and aerospace designs, but also designs of buildings, to make sure they can withstand high winds.
Motorsports, especially with the recent economic times, have changed as well. CART/Champ Car is no more and the IZOD IndyCar Series is suffering like every other entertainment venue in a tough economy. The budgets are no longer there for most teams to run in a competitive chassis program. According to Page, it's simply not possible to have that and meet the cost goal of $370,000 for a complete chassis kit.
“The number they're talking about needing today is at least threefold less than a competitive chassis program,” says Page. “If you have to win to keep getting fed, you have to invest hugely more than you would on a spec car. And it kills us, because we want that. But you can't have it all. Everybody's hope is that when the economics for open-wheel racing return, everybody wants to aim that way. Nobody wants to see an eternal single chassis.”
As critical as cost, many of the innovations that Swift is looking to incorporate are simply not possible if they have to build a car to compete with others. One area they're looking at is to tweak the aerodynamics to make passing easier. No manufacturer is going to make its car easier to pass by a competing chassis if they can help it.
“The car that you build for a spec series is very different than what you would build for an open competition series,” says Roberts.
Adds Casper van der Schoot, Swift's motorsports director: “When a spec formula is adopted, what it does is give you freedom in certain areas that you would not otherwise have. So you can be a little more creative with the way the car looks and the way it's perceived by the viewers, which otherwise you couldn't for performance reasons.”
It allows appearance to be part of the equation when designing a racecar. While great function often begets beautiful form, sometimes it's a trade-off. And in attracting an audience, as Roberts notes: “Certainly the importance of appearance is enormous. That's what sells a program and keeps it sold. Not just in automotive – we've seen the same thing in our aircraft programs and some of our aerospace work. If something looks proper, functional and attractive, it tends to gain some momentum.
“One thing we try to integrate into every design we do is what we call aero styling. The aerodynamicist and the body surface designers sit down and design the car together at the same screen. Quite often you end up with racecars that aren't very attractive. But optimum performance and beauty can go together. Consider the populations of birds and fish…there are some ugly fish, but they're all slow.”