Gil de Ferran is in good humor, discussing what lies ahead for the IZOD IndyCar Series as it transitions from same-old into next-day. In 2012, the entire box gets shaken, turned upside down, dumped on the floor and everyone starts fresh. New engines, new chassis/aero kit combinations, new suppliers – a fresh, blank canvas and gallons of bright paint.
As a team co-owner, De Ferran has to turn into practicality what he helped orchestrate as part of the seven-man ICONIC panel that arranged the new plan. And he, like all team owners, has the framework of just 15 months. But this much he's confident of so far: The response has been encouraging. Two obvious examples have been the return of Chevrolet and Lotus.
“Nobody is more in love with 1,000-horsepower cars and a free-for-all than me, but this was a matter of what was feasible and what wasn't feasible,” de Ferran says, describing the choice between the extremes of a wide-open plan and a clamped-down plan. “The group came up with creative solutions to extremely difficult problems. It's not all done; there are problems still to deal with. But when we looked at the bigger picture, we had to decide what we wanted from this. What did we want IndyCar to represent in the motorsports picture and in society as a whole?
“At that point, you're dealing with questions of strategy, the positioning of IndyCar and the long-term future of this form of racing in the global motorsports world. It was very difficult, but I do believe that what we came up with – at least for now – seems to have solved a lot of these puzzles.”
So let's take a look at IndyCar's impending overhaul. What challenges does it present to different aspects of the series? What does it mean to the engineering side, the business side, the driving side and the officiating side?
One major alliance – Team Penske with Chevrolet engines – already is on the record, recreating the duo that conquered Indy beginning in 1988 with Rick Mears (LEFT), but most teams and manufacturers are still forming alliances. The key to this – aside from an exchange of money, of course – is finding the right people to represent the product and the right product to represent the people. That, on paper, puts a premium back on drivers.
“In any competitive series, the drivers' abilities and talents when there are manufacturers involved, the demand for the driver certainly goes up,” explains Tim Cindric, president of Team Penske. “Those drivers have to represent that manufacturer on and off the track and they will have less to choose from than they do now. At the moment, Honda can utilize any of their 25 drivers as their spokesperson. When that's cut by 66 percent, it becomes a lot more important that you have the right ones.”
For drivers currently struggling to find funding for rides, that's good news. Likewise, it's good news for the series' smaller operators. It's likely that the big three – Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Andretti Autosport – will side with different manufacturers, thus magnifying the differences at the top. But the real fight will be among the smaller operators to choose the most effective supplier for their needs. In other words, the oft-criticized dominance of Penske and Chip Ganassi might be on the wane, and the futures of HVM Racing and A.J. Foyt Racing might be on the rise.
“More competition, manufacturers and more sponsors in the series benefits everyone, including us,” says Cindric. “Winning races or championships in a series that isn't healthy isn't nearly as rewarding as having success – even if it's less than now – in a series that's on the rise. We'd trade that any day.”
While Honda welcomed recent announcements that the brands of Chevrolet (built by Ilmor) and Lotus (built by Cosworth) will join the series in 2012, its leader cautioned against assuming that Honda might be too far ahead of its future competitors at this point in time – or that everyone is starting with a blank set of blueprints.
“We were pretty well along in our scheming when [IndyCar CEO] Randy Bernard came along last spring,” explains Erik Berkman, president of Honda Performance Development. “We negotiated with him about the timing. We said, ‘Please understand that if you go past June 1, we can't commit.' We needed the time to do it right.”
As the first on board for 2012, HPD plans to offer a 2.4-liter twin turbo V6. “Our engine is well along,” Berkman says. “The hard parts are in hand and we will be testing soon. We've got a running start, you could say, but the other competitors have a rich heritage. I don't want to assume that they're starting from a clean sheet of paper.”
Still, he's got little more than a year to make engines available but doesn't have rules, a source of frustration for many manufacturers and teams. “We don't have a set of rules. The league is trying to do its best to appease everybody and make everything work. We may well be able to put our engine into the first Dallara chassis available, so we're working to that. We've got enough time. If the rules are released soon, we'll be OK.”
So he waits, preparing the old workhorse V8 for its final season. “It can be very trying to wait for the final, detailed engine specifications from the series. I know it's complicated and a lot of things have to be balanced, but at some point you have to be ready to go. We're comfortable that we're in as good shape as we can be right now.”
Development driver. Haven't heard that phrase since Bryan Herta retired from the cockpit, right? It's possible that the depth of experimentation – namely from the aero kits – in the post-2011 world will require multi-car teams to keep an R&D shoe on staff.
“The performance equation is heavily weighted toward experience,” de Ferran says. “We've been running the same equipment for seven or eight years. Basically it means the drivers and engineers who know these cars have a huge advantage. Development is essentially an eliminative process. It's one foot in front of the other.
“With new cars and equipment coming along, it becomes a complete reset. The guy who has a good feel for it and understands what he wants out of the car and what he needs to make it fast should be able to do the job. Experience will be more valuable today than ever.”
A premium will be placed on drivers with technical knowledge, strong feel and feedback, and the ability and willingness to mentor younger, less experienced drivers.
“It definitely will be more complex for drivers,” de Ferran says. “Now you're talking about aerodynamic development and engine development as well as all the normal tuning parameters that one has today. I think that's great. I welcome that elevation in complexity to solve the problem. The driver is always a big part of the puzzle. If the engineer is the brain, then the driver is the eyes. You can make engineers look at all sorts of wrong things. If you can make them look at the right things, then you're a valuable asset.”
POLICING THE PLAYERS
There's a micro and macro view to what IndyCar Series officials face as 2012 looms. They must first police the overall picture – provide regulations, assist teams and manufacturers in the development of the racecars, and, finally, keep monitoring and regulating the on-track product.
Two simple guidelines: Don't let any supplier get too top-heavy with good teams – or too exclusive to one – and don't let the competition degenerate into a technical war. As vice president of operations and race director of Champ Car from 2004 to 2008, Tony Cotman is familiar with one of the underlying causes of the collapse of CART – unchecked dynamics among engine manufacturers and teams.
“Before, it was a free-for-all,” Cotman explains. “The manufacturers bought off the teams, and it spiraled out of control. The current economic situation has solved much of that. The unlimited funds are gone now.”
Now with NZR Consulting and the project manager of the IndyCar Series' 2012 plan, Cotman is in the early stages of the project, with the clock ticking and people breathing down his neck. Do this right (read “carefully”) and rescue a form of racing. Do it haphazardly? Well, that's just not in the playbook.
“I feel like we have a good grasp on it at this point,” he says. “As you'd imagine, when you introduce a new engine and chassis, any little problem can snowball. You need to step back and apply some guiding principles, and I feel like we've been able to do that so far.
“Anytime you have multiple manufacturers, anything can crop up. It only becomes an issue if we don't stay on top of it. I don't see why longevity can't be expected in this. If you take the short-
side view, then we're going to be exactly where we are now: with a spec car.”
The success of Lotus turned IndyCar front to back
Jim Clark might never have driven for Lotus had John Surtees not gone to the Isle of Man in 1960 to race bikes. It's unlikely that Lotus would have won the 1965 Indianapolis 500 without Clark, and unlikely Lotus would have considered a return to IndyCar racing 45 years later without that Indy legacy.
So, in a roundabout way, the return of Lotus green to American open-wheel racing – and the transformation of the Indianapolis 500 – can be credited to two-wheeled racing.
Anyway you look at it, Lotus' influence on North American single-seat racing is profound. The Lotus that Clark wheeled around the Speedway in '65 was the first rear-engined car to win the race, essentially ending the roadster era and ushering in the rear-engined format that has dominated the genre since.
There was more to Clark's famous win, of course. The Scotsman's dominant performance – 190 laps led, a record 150mph race average – was the first Indy 500 victory by a foreign driver in more than 50 years, introducing the race to a global field and audience.
Clark's win didn't begin or end Lotus' run at the Speedway. He finished second twice (1963 and '66) and won the pole in '64. By 1967, the Lotus contingent – Clark, Graham Hill and Larry Dickson – were off the front-running pace, and the two Britons went out before quarter distance with piston failures. Lotus returned to Indy in 1968 with a four-wheel-drive, Pratt & Whitney turbine-powered car, but a fuel shaft failure while Joe Leonard's example was leading with nine laps to go ended the British manufacturer's Indy experiment.
The Lotus name returned to IndyCar racing as a sponsor with KV Racing Technology in 2010, but the partnership has blossomed into an agreement to build engines and aero kits for 2012.