Competition improves the breed: you can bet that aero kits from Chevrolet and Honda and maybe a revised one from Dallara will all produce more downforce than the current spec kit on the DW12 and I'm not alone in worrying that this could send IndyCar back into the Indy Racing League era of 100 percent throttle, 100 percent of the time on ovals. That prospect should terrify us all. I've quickly sifted through my interview transcriptions from the past 18 months, to find commentary on driving the previous generation IRL car on ovals. (Regarding the two unattributed, off-the-record quotes, the first was said by a driver after getting embroiled in an accident that was not his fault, the other was uttered by a senior team member who wished to remain nameless.)
“On new tires, your chief mechanic – if he's brave enough – could go and lap one of these ovals in qualifying and reach the exact same speed as the regular driver.” Mario Andretti, 2011
“What are we doing? What has this sport come to, where anyone can do this because it's so easy? IndyCar wants to give this image that it's all about the drivers. So why do they make a formula that allows everyone to look talented on ovals? Some of those guys out there…I wouldn't trust them to drive me to the ******* airport, and when we go to road courses, they're screwed. But they can still qualify in the top 10 on the ovals if they have a good aero setup. It's enormously screwed up.” Anonymous, 2011
“I don't mind going three-wide every now and then, but to just sit continuously in the third or fourth lane, lap after lap, waiting for someone to touch tires, is crazy and it's not real racing. I want to be going three-wide as part of a great passing maneuver, not as a way of life!” Tomas Scheckter, 2011
“For so long, IndyCar had an oval formula that was boring, required no talent, but was also incredibly dangerous…. If you're glued to the track when you're running solo, there's something wrong with the rules. If the shortest line is the quickest line, it's wrong. If you're not taking the racing line, it's not racing!” Will Power, 2012
“Why do you think we've seen drivers make so many dumb mistakes in the pits this year? It's because everyone's equal in these cars, so pit lane is the only place you can make up time on your rival. Silly, isn't it? We've reached a stage where the races are being won by whoever's neatest at parking their car…” Anonymous, 2011
“For me, banked ovals and IRL cars don't create good racing. It's dangerous and it doesn't allow good drivers to shine. All they show is that you're as stupid as anyone else, as brave as anyone else and, if you win, it shows you have a faster car than anyone else. So do I like them? No. Am I good at them? Sure. I'm as stupid as anyone else out there.” Sebastien Bourdais, 2011
IndyCar has a duty to not be so desperate for close competition that it has a technical package that favors drivers who are “all balls and eyesight,” to quote the late, great Frank Gardner. You think I'm scare-mongering? Uh-uh. We're not so far off it, even now with the DW12. Tim Cindric wrote: “Qualifying for the Indianapolis 500 should be the hardest four laps a driver does all year, but last May, many of the drivers said it was one of their easiest tasks because there was too much grip and not enough power. It's becoming like Daytona in NASCAR – the marquee event is becoming the easiest to qualify for…”
Dario Franchitti, reigning Indy 500 champion, told me last November: “It was great seeing all those lead changes [at Indy] but, yeah, the fact that even when your car was really working well you still couldn't gap anyone…that was a bit frustrating. Cars that, when they ran up front, were 2mph slower than you, could still get towed along in your wake and draft past. And I think some of that was down to having slightly less horsepower this year. Indy has put on some great races and this year was great for the fans, but still I think when you've absolutely nailed a corner or nailed a lap, you should be able to gain an advantage, have something to show for it.”
At the next oval on the schedule, just two weeks after the “500”, a miracle occurred. IndyCar's vp of technology, Will Phillips, grasped the nettle, reduced the downforce and, at a stroke, restored sanity and true racing to the Texas Motor Speedway event. Race winner, Justin Wilson, reflected: “That was great. We were sliding around and so we were pitting because the tires were going off, not just because we needed fuel. What was done to the technical package there is how we need to keep it. Pack racing cannot be allowed to return.”
Scott Dixon, in his blog here on RACER.com, said: “We had been complaining for years and this time the drivers requested [a reduction in downforce] and IndyCar agreed to it. Some of the drivers were bitching about it, but of course they were: they were the ones struggling the most. The fact is, you're supposed to drive an IndyCar: it's not meant to be easy while also being faster and more dangerous! To me, the race at Texas was 10 times safer and 10 times more exciting. Even though I crashed and had a bad night, I still went away thinking, ‘Man, that was a good race that showed off the talents of the driver to not only drive his car but also tune it and adapt it at 200mph.'”
Of course, Phillips has made things harder for himself by proving how swiftly the downforce can be reduced when necessary. When I remarked on that to one of the drivers recently, he said, “Good, because he's going to have to do it all season. I bet you all the teams will have found more grip, just from having a year's data with this car. I'm pretty sure Honda and Chevy won't have made as big steps increasing the power as the teams have made with understanding their cars, and already a couple of the ovals last year were a bit too easy because there was more grip than power. Indy was obviously one, but also Iowa because it's got a high-grip surface. Actually, Fontana started off tricky but as it cooled down, we discovered the high line could be taken flat all the way around. So yeah, I hope Will is going to be busy all year. I'm going to keep on at him about this.”
Another Will, Mr. Power, is sure to do likewise, although he's already been frustrated by people – including some of his peers – not joining him in the quest to cut downforce. “It pisses me off that some people think me and Tim [Cindric] are trying to change stuff to suit us, saying that having the cars low-downforce and loose will give me an advantage. They should think about what they're saying, because they've got that completely back to front! If we were looking for an advantage, we'd be happy if the ovals are just IRL-style pack racing, flat-out all the way around. I'd be virtually guaranteed a top five every time out because Penske and Ganassi prepare their oval cars better than anyone else; me and Helio and Dario and Scottie Dog [Dixon] would pick up all the wins and we'd get to look like stars even though all we did all race was hold the steering wheel and keep our foot to the floor. But that's not why we're in IndyCar – to get easy wins. Or it shouldn't be, anyway…”
As well as being more challenging for the drivers (and safer on ovals), aggressively altering the power/downforce equation in favor of the former would create a must-see show for the fans. Some 3000 words ago, I stated that there's a simple philosophy that all race series should follow, and it's one I've been pushing for years because I know it to be true: Produce technical regulations that ensure that a solitary car at speed is an awe-inspiring sight. Everything else necessary for a series' appeal would be a natural corollary – the car would be a challenge to drive; the car would be a challenge to engineer; for the fans, it would matter less when the cars were strung out in practice, qualifying or on race day if each one was creating a moment of drama every time it passed; and a pack of 25 of them at starts and restarts would be one of the most unforgettable, adrenaline-pumping spectacles any racing enthusiast could wish to see.
There's a reason that old-timers go misty eyed when they talk about Can-Am series in the 1966-'73 era, and it isn't because the racing was close; frequently it wasn't. The series wasn't sustainable because the technical regulations were too unrestrictive and the business model too haphazard. Yet no one who saw the Lolas, Chaparrals, McLarens and Porsches being driven by F1, IndyCar and sports car stars will ever forget the cars' overwhelming potency.
I believe IndyCar must strive for something similar. There should be enough smart people in influential roles who can sidestep the errors of their counterparts in previous generations of USAC, CART, Champ Car and IRL and who, if they all pull in the same direction for the same common cause, can apply a sensible business model that fits with the current economic climate. But they must also allow the technical experts to craft rules and regulations that challenge drivers, designers, engineers and tire suppliers while, by proxy, rewarding fans and attracting sponsors.
But before those tech experts do anything, here's a cautionary note from the 1963 Indy 500 winner, lifted from his excellent new autobiography with Bones Bourcier, As a matter of fact, I am Parnelli Jones. Parnelli's views on IndyCar racing predictably tally precisely with those of Dixon, Power, Franchitti – indeed, any driver with talent, confidence and a conscience. But he then adds another very valid point: “Here's something I can't figure out: Why is it that whenever a sanctioning body wants to design a new rules package, they go straight to the engineers for suggestions? Every engineer I've ever met wants to build a car that corners better and gets more grip. In other words, a car that's easier to drive. So don't ask those guys.”
Instead, they should create rules that follow the principle suggested by a driver from a similar era as Jones, Formula 1 ace Tony Brooks, who once remarked to journalist Nigel Roebuck: “To make a car worth driving or watching, it must have more power than its chassis can comfortably handle.” Along the same lines, those in charge of the future of Indy car racing should remember the very simple tenet of Gil de Ferran, double CART IndyCar champion and 2003 Indy 500 winner. “An IndyCar should be an intimidating beast!”
Let's hope those in charge at 16th and Georgetown are listening, understanding and have the courage to act accordingly.