What a concept: Pop Off Valve reviews the 2012 IndyCars

It's my own design
It's my own remorse
Help me to decide...
Everybody wants to rule the world.
Tears for Fears



Eye candy for the IndyCar faithful.

Really, that's mostly what the images from Dallara Automobili, Swift Engineering, DeltaWing and Lola Group are. The proposals heading to the head honchos at the IZOD IndyCar Series are far more mundane - heavy on optimistic press releases and technical jargon.

Still, even though we here at Pop Off Valve aren't exactly the people any of these manufacturers are trying to impress, we still have opinions about these hopeful dreams for IndyCar's future - and these companies' bottom lines. So, like them or not, here they are.


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Dallara Automobili

The incumbent - and exclusive - chassis provider for the IZOD IndyCar Series, Dallara would seem to be in the driver's seat for the 2012 design, mostly because of the relationship the company already enjoys with the league.

Dallara released three concepts ranging from uninspired to evolutionary to revolutionary. It's always tough to go first in any competition, but the general sense we got is that Dallara basically threw stuff at the wall and hoped something would stick.

As with all of the manufacturers, with the notable exception of DeltaWing, Dallara's "sell sheet" for their concept couches most of the descriptions of features and performance in the most general terms. Instead, Dallara apparently decided to rely heavily on two things - their existing status with IndyCar, and the fact that they would build a facility to create their cars in Speedway, Indiana - to give them the edge.

Pop Off Valve Grade: C

What we think: The cars have that borderline-ugly look we've all come to expect from Dallara. Whether that has anything to do with the very basic renders or the habits of Dallara's designers, we're not sure. But the Dallara designs seem to be a jack-of-all-trades approach, and that worries us. How can three extremely disparate car concepts achieve all of the same design goals? Dallara hasn't given us an answer yet.

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Swift Engineering

American-based Swift Engineering was the second manufacturer to release their concepts to the IndyCar community. And did they ever make a splash.

Like Dallara, Swift revealed three concept cars. Unlike Dallara, however, the renders were gorgeous and clean, and the designs were dead sexy. The first concept was the most evolutionary (versus revolutionary); however, Swift included what they called a "mushroom buster" at the rear of the car designed to cut the wake turbulence from the car's wings and make slipstreaming easier. The second and third concepts were both far more radical - both drawing from Le Mans prototype design cues in many respects.

In addition to the "mushroom buster," Swift also released details of the so-called "SwiftLights" feature. Essentially form-fitting LED panels, the SwiftLights are intended to convey details such as race position, control inputs and fuel levels to spectators at the track and watching on TV.

Pop Off Valve Grade: A-

What we think: Visually, Swift has hit a home run. None of the other companies comes close to providing as much visual excitement as any of the three Swift concepts. We particularly like the open engine covers - a nice touch that hearkens back to IndyCars of yesteryear. And we're big fans of the "mushroom buster" - if it works as intended. We're not so keen on SwiftLights - it reminds us a lot of Fox's glowing hockey puck concept that fizzled out a few years ago. Frankly, we'd like to hear more about the way the Swift would save money and innovate rather than how cool it would be to see lights flashing when a driver hits the brake.

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DeltaWing

Who knew that the Chicago Auto Show would be provide the base that launched a thousand quips? Certainly, the IndyCar owners who are the driving force behind DeltaWing, LLC may not have expected that the backlash to their DeltaWing concept IndyCar would be as vitriolic as it has been to date.

But in general, people fear change, and the DeltaWing delivers change with all the subtlety of Paul Bunyan's axe blows. Radical doesn't begin to describe Ben Bowlby's latest creation - a car built from the ground up to change the entire face of IndyCar racing. The tricycle-based design (the fourth wheel was added as a concession to fans and the FIA, the latter of which would have considered a three-wheeled design a motorcycle instead of a car) is intended to be a car that represents dramatically lower costs, innovative technology, and a "greener" race car. DeltaWing also intends for the car to be "open-source," with a variety of manufacturers building their own versions of the car for competition at a substantially reduced price-to-own for teams. Additionally, since the engine would be a non-stressed part of the car, a wide variety of possible engine combinations would be possible.

DeltaWing, LLC styles itself as an independent technical arm of the IndyCar series, which means that if the DeltaWing is approved, the owner-operated company would assume control of virtually all of the IndyCar series' technical issues.

Pop Off Valve Grade: B+

What we think: Let's get one thing out of the way first: our grade was based on a curve. There are actually two grades we could give the DeltaWing. First, a definite A+ for originality of concept and technical innovation. The car's function represents a landmark in IndyCar paradigms, and the ideas behind the technology simply make us drool. In this respect, the DeltaWing group leads by a large - perhaps insurmountable - margin. But as they say, form follows function, and in terms of form we give the DeltaWing a D. Not quite an epic fail, but it's close. The car looks like a something out of an automotive porn magazine. We also think that, innovation or not, the series should not race a tricycle (Bowlby started with a four-wheeled design but thought it looked too similar to a Le Mans prototype). And there are some questions we have about the driver's safety as well as the car's performance in situations where a "traditional" four-wheeled car might have better balance and impact attenuation. We're also not sure how wise it would be to give the owners total control over the series' technical arm - the last time the owners went after such power was in 1979 with the Gurney white paper, and we all know how that turned out. If those concerns could be addressed - and the car de-schlonged a bit - then our grade will certainly move up a notch or two.

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Lola Group

Few IndyCars have been as beloved as Lola Group's, even when they were Champ Cars. The Lolas have always been workhorses that provided great racing and reliable performance. The company has significant image cachet with American open-wheel fans as a result.

 

That's why so many IndyCar fans were on the edges of their seats waiting for the Lola 2012 concept cars. Finally, a week after the DeltaWing unveiling, Lola granted their wishes.

The Lola concepts indicated that Lola had elected to forgo visual revolution in favor of practical innovation. Lola submitted two chassis that are intended to run together in IndyCar competition. While there are multiple points of visual divergence between the two, Lola is adamant that neither chassis will provide a performance advantage over the other.

More significantly, however, the Lola chassis is intended to be raced in both the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Firestone Indy Lights Series. The tub and various chassis parts and systems would be interchangeable with sidepods, wings and powerplants unique to each series, which would make it far easier and cheaper for an owner to operate between series or, as another example, run the Indy 500 while competing in a full Lights season.

Pop Off Valve Grade: B

What we think: We were certainly disappointed with the look of the new Lolas. Had these cars been released in 1997, we'd be much bigger fans. But the blocky body shape with its rather goofy "widget" package barely registers as different from the current blocky-body Dallaras, which leads us to wonder exactly how the Lola will achieve the significant innovation goals asked for by the IndyCar series. What elevates the Lola's grade, however, is the chassis commonality between the IICS and FILS. While we're very skeptical that the overall car cost will be reduced as much as IndyCar requires - much less to the draconian reductions allowed by the DeltaWing - the cost savings in terms of inventory for car owners is significant. Plus, it solves the thorny question of what to do with the Indy Lights program in terms of new chassis going forward - a question to which we are not sure IndyCar has an answer. Bonus points to Lola for allowing at least the illusion of chassis variety with their concurrently-running body styles.

Summary

If the decision were to be made now, Swift would come out summa cum laude in the 2012 graduating class, but only by the barest of margins. Visually, the Swift has no peer in the contest. However, DeltaWing - for all of its eye-searing ugliness - has gone farther down the road of revolutionary, next-generation technical thinking. Many of DeltaWing's innovations and ideas are ones that we believe are critical for the IndyCar series to adopt if the category is to survive into the future. We also believe that Lola's ideas for chassis commonality and dual-chassis competition are far, far more important to adopt than, say, the SwiftLights concept.

In other words, there is some significant gold to be mined from three of the four manufacturers submitting concepts to the series for 2012. If an amalgam of all of the best ideas from Swift, Lola and DeltaWing could be fashioned, we feel that the future could be very bright for the IndyCar series. Dallara, on the other hand, has a lot of catch-up work to do if they want to be in the running. We don't think that resting on one's laurels is going to cut it.

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