Following the death of Dan Wheldon, the IZOD IndyCar Series has not only been cooperating with the investigation into the former champion's accident at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last October, but has also brought together drivers, team owners, engineers, technical staff from the series and its suppliers to discuss safety. All wish to make IndyCar's oval racing less hazardous but without losing the challenge for the competitors and the entertainment for the spectators.
Not surprisingly, few wanted to put their heads above the parapet (on the record) until the investigation was complete and/or decisions were reached in the safety discussions. But no one disagreed with one abiding principle that Mario Andretti, for one, has been advocating for years: In order to heavily reduce pack racing on ovals, whereby IndyCars lap endlessly three abreast, there has to be a far bigger differential between terminal speeds on the straights and apex speed in the turns. How that's achieved is The Big Problem.
So how does the IndyCar Series get back on the circuits that allow it to produce some of the best racing in the world, yet at the same time provide a safer environment for the competitors and hold events that are truly reflective of the combination of driver talent and team skills? Here are the thoughts of some of those prepared to talk. Not one of them claims to have the solution(s).
GIL DE FERRAN Ex-driver, team owner
There are a variety of factors that contribute to a car's performance at any given racetrack. They are to do with the track's corner radius, angle of banking and surface grip. On the car, you're talking drag, downforce, horsepower and tire grip. These factors provide infinite variables and so a lot of careful studies need to be made to understand which combination of these factors are suitable and which are not.
The technologies to do such studies are out there and there are clever engineers who can direct them. A lot of them can be done in a virtual manner and, when combined with on-track testing, the picture will become clearer. We all have instinctive thoughts on what we want to see, but sometimes instincts are wrong, so to make a definitive decision on what needs to change, you need a very scientific approach to the problem.
There must be a way to resolve this issue, because I'm a firm believer in “where there is a will there is a way.” Since the resources exist and the necessity exists, let's get on and make it happen.
However, we all need to be very careful to steer clear of superficial analysis and knee-jerk reactions because you can end up with unintended consequences if you don't do your homework correctly. That would be the worst thing – to move forward but in the wrong direction. Like I say, there are enough resources available to IndyCar to make progress, so let's take advantage of them, and move forward decisively but correctly.
TOMAS SCHECKTER Driver
We must carry on racing on the 1.5-mile ovals, and obviously part of the attraction are the high speeds and the side-by-side racing. But do we need 30 of us in a big group? No. I'm happy to go even faster but we need greater separation, something to distinguish the best driver from the worst driver. So I'd say give us 1,000hp. Then we'd see how easy it is to keep your foot flat to the floor when your car has the ability to spin the wheels at 180mph! Getting the straightaway speed higher but making the car harder to drive is a personal wish of mine.
At tire tests, we're always focusing on how much grip we're going to get from the tires and how long they last, but I think we've seen in Formula 1 this past season, it's quite good when a tire goes off quickly. It changes it up so that you have people trying a greater variety of strategies and you have passing, because there are some cars going quicker, some slower at different times. And, under yellow, the tracks can be cleaned. I don't think marbles should be a problem.
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!
AL SPEYER Executive Director of Firestone
I think our record shows very clearly that we've always made safety a priority and that our tires are durable wherever the IndyCars run. And high-speed ovals are one of the most difficult to get right. Ask 10 people what they want and we'll get 15 answers – at least! Now that safety record is something we don't want to mess with.
It's feasible to make narrower tires in time for the 2012 season, but there is a limit. The load-carrying capacity of a tire is largely influenced by the volume of air inside it: a motorcycle's tire can't bear a vast amount of load, whereas an earth mover's tire can. But whatever we do, we must not trade off durability for some other gain, because ultimately that could make the situation worse.
There are other ways to take grip out – you can add grooves, you can make harder compounds. But there's no quick fix from the wings, tires or tracks – not when a machine is so highly tuned as a modern open-wheel racecar. Our minds are completely open and we talk about it every day. However, the important thing is to get everyone working together. People from the chassis, aero, engine, tire and sporting regulation side of things all need to work together, we need to pool everyone's inputs, get a consensus and then move accordingly.