At a Crucial Moment in Its History, IndyCar Once Again Casts Its Lot With Dallara
With so much at stake – the future of the sport, no less – IZOD IndyCar Series CEO Randy Bernard took to the stage at Indianapolis Museum of Art in mid-July to answer the question that has been hovering over the sport for the past several years: what will replace the capable, yet thoroughly tired and unloved Dallara chassis that’s been in service since 2003?
Another Dallara. That’s right, a new Dallara rolling chassis will replace the current car in less than 18 months, in time for the start of the 2012 season.
Referred to as the ‘IndyCar Safety Cell’ by Bernard and the members of the seven-man ICONIC Advisory Committee, which had been entrusted to come up with a recommendation for the next car, the new Dallara IndyCar rolling chassis, including the necessary running gear will cost $349,000 (all figures US).
A complete car with an aero package minus the engine will be $385,000. These figures represent a 45 per cent cost reduction compared with the current car.
Bernard and the ICONIC group are hoping that by allowing different chassis, auto and even aerospace manufacturers to create their own aero ‘clothing’ kits (wings, sidepods and engine covers) for the new Dallara, the 2012 grid will have at least a few of the different looking cars fans and the media have been clamouring for, even though they will all be the same under the skin.
Dallara too, will be allowed to get in on the aero game, and has agreed to make its own kit available to IndyCar teams. The league has mandated that interested manufacturers must not sell the kits for more than $70,000, and they must be available to all teams. Each team will be allowed to use a maximum of two aero kits per season. So far, the only other manufacturer that has agreed to build and market aero kits for the 2012 car is Lotus.
So how did we get here?
Over the course of the last several months the seven-member ICONIC Advisory Committee (representing different aspects of IndyCar racing with varied backgrounds and areas of expertise) sifted through proposals from five different manufacturers who were all vying for the right to build the 2012 car (as outlined in the last issue of PRN): BAT Engineering, Dallara, Delta Wing, Lola and Swift. All have extensive experience designing and building formula-type cars and all, with perhaps the exception of Dallara, were hoping to win the contract as an exclusive supplier.
Just getting to the point where the car would be selected has, in itself, been a slow – and some would say halting – process. The pressure to replace the aging Dallara chassis has been steadily building since IndyCar/Champ Car unification in 2008, not only within the sport, but especially amongst fans and media who have grown tired of the safe and reliable, but stodgy and low-tech look of the current car.
In their eyes, the league’s long climb back up to respectability and relevance on the motorsports landscape wasn’t going to be accomplished with a near decade-old car that, rightly or wrongly, is a symbol of the divisive 12-year split in open-wheel racing.
To them, the old Dallara had to go – the sooner, the better.
IndyCar management, still under the leadership of president Tony George in the initial post-split period, said all of the right things publicly about wanting to introduce a new car to competition, especially with the pending 100-year anniversary of the first Indianapolis 500 approaching (2011), but there seemed to be little tangible progress towards that end.
In mid-2009, George was relieved of his position as president and chairman of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway after an acrimonious split with the IMS board of directors (comprised of himself, his mother, Mari Hulman George, his three sisters and the family’s attorney), over how much money was being spent to keep IndyCar going. He was given the option of staying on as league president, but declined and subsequently resigned his seat on the IMS board. Long-time IMS executive Jeff Belskus was named as the president of the Speedway and interim president of IndyCar.
At the time of George’s exit, the league had committed to introducing a new car to competition in time for the start of the 2012 season (initially 2011, until it was determined there wouldn’t be enough time), but there was little evidence as to what the car might look like or who would be building it.
Some of IndyCar’s partners, notably current engine supplier Honda, began to express concern about being able to supply engines for a new car by 2012, when there was still no official word from the league regarding chassis and engine specifications.
Things finally started moving forward in the fall of 2009 when DeltaWing LLC, led by former Lola designer Ben Bowlby began work on a new IndyCar at the behest of Chip Ganassi and several other team owners. Bowlby’s DeltaWing IndyCar was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show in February and was an instant lightning rod for comments, both positive and negative. Shaped like a rocket with no wings, a rear fin and small, front wheels set close together, the Delta Wing car created a flood of reaction in the IndyCar community, especially online. It also served to turn up the heat on the league to make a decision regarding the 2012 car.
Once Bernard took office as president on March 1, things started quickly moving forward. The formation of the ICONIC panel was announced three weeks later and the members were officially revealed in mid-April. In early June, ICONIC revealed its engine specification recommendation: maximum displacement of 2.4 litres with up to six cylinders, turbocharged with a horsepower range of 550-700 depending on the track. The Overtake Assist feature will be retained with a limited gain of up to 100 horsepower on select tracks.
With all of that out of the way, it was time to make a decision regarding the car.
Going into the announcement, some had predicted that Dallara would be chosen, given its long-standing relationship with IndyCar, which dates back to 1997. Lola was thought to be a strong contender as well, given its proposal and history as a CART/Champ Car chassis builder. Swift, BAT and Delta Wing had their supporters, but weren’t considered to be amongst the favourites.
In the end, Dallara was chosen not only because it will be able to deliver the kind of cost containment the league was looking for with an emphasis on safety, but it has also pledged to build the cars in a new facility in Speedway, Indiana, in the shadow of the IMS with some financial assistance from state and local governments in the form of tax credits.
In addition to being a car manufacturing facility, the new Dallara plant is also expected to house meeting rooms, car simulators and a fan experience zone. It is expected to add 75-100 new jobs, and the league hopes in time it will act as a hub that will draw other IndyCar related businesses to Indianapolis, much in the same way that NASCAR-related industries are clustered in Charlotte, North Carolina.
IndyCar officials and members of the ICONIC panel are confident that the new car will address teams concerns regarding costs and safety and will also give the fans different looking cars assuming aero kit builders come on stream.
“This unique and groundbreaking concept embraces innovation and competition, very much in keeping with IndyCar traditions, while at the same time achieving the impossible, reducing the cost of entry and competition,” said Gil de Ferran, co-owner of de Ferran Dragon Racing and a member of the ICONIC committee following the announcement.
Bernard was similarly optimistic, saying that, “This car puts everything all of our stakeholders want on the racetrack: safety, competition on and off the track, diversity, efficiency and more.”
The idea of dressing the same car with aero kits made from a variety of manufacturers is indeed a novel one and, assuming manufacturers come on board, it could satisfy the need for diversity while controlling costs. It could also satisfy fans desire for change, and assist the series’ branding and marketing efforts.
Will the concept attract auto manufacturers, engine and aerospace suppliers like Bernard and the ICONIC panel hope?
It’s far too early in the proceedings to answer that question.