Sweating out ICONIC's chassis decision

The "Road to Indy" Swift concept #70, the latest of several 2012 IndyCar concepts from the manufacturer. The ICONIC advisory panel is due to issue its chassis recommendation by June 30. (Photo: Swift Engineering)

The IZOD IndyCar Series' advisory panel released its recommendations to the league regarding the 2012 engine specification two weeks ago to great fanfare.

It was a somewhat tricky balancing act for sure, with the series trying both to appease calls for a more open and inclusive formula while keeping current exclusive supplier Honda happy. But thus far the response from all parties seems to be overwhelmingly positive. In Pop Off Valve's own unofficial polling, 91% of respondents were at least "optimistic" about the new formula.

That's the good news.

What still hasn't been answered is what will happen with the series' chassis specification or the ICONIC panel's recommendation for it. The same questions that surrounded ICONIC's engine recommendation apply to the chassis - how much should change, and how much change is too much change?

More worrisome for many fans, perhaps, is a larger question - can IndyCar afford to be as inclusive with the new chassis as they will be with the engines?

Let's make one thing clear from the outset - the new 2012 chassis is a slightly different problem than the 2012 engine. For one thing, the engine situation was one that required a solution for a lack of competition. Honda, the exclusive provider of IndyCar powerplants for over half a decade, has produced virtually bulletproof powerplants. But reliability is not the sexiest selling point in the world, particularly when it is understood that, lacking any peers, Honda had no incentive to push the engines' performance beyond a very safe zone. The 2012 engine spec at once satisfies Honda's desire for competition, keeps Honda happy by allowing them to use an offshoot of their current V6 technology, and opens the door wide open for manufacturer interest by allowing whatever solutions that will fit within the league's parameters for horsepower and displacement.

The chassis problem is another animal altogether. Although there is great interest from several parties in producing the new IndyCar, only one of them even alludes to an open paradigm for allowing competing manufacturers to take part at the same time. That manufacturer is Delta Wing, LLC, whose business model is targeted less towards providing full rolling chassis for all teams and more with being a marketplace of sorts for parts and the development thereof.

Delta Wing, in theory, would provide league-approved parameters for the car in general and then allow teams or other manufacturers to fabricate unique parts and pieces that fit those parameters ("legal" parts would be stamped with Delta Wing's and league approval). It is far more of an open system - again, in theory - than any other manufacturer proposal, and if adopted it would lead to the most diversity between teams in terms of the on-track product.

Unfortunately for Delta Wing, there are two issues about which virtually all IndyCar fans - and not a few IndyCar insiders as well - are extraordinarily skeptical. First of all, the rolling model that Ben Bowlby and the Delta Wing team came up with is not the prettiest thing in the world. It's certainly awe-inspiring because it is so different from what everyone is used to - indeed, the very difference is one of its main selling points to supporters because according to them the buzz it will inspire will be off the charts. But although the Delta Wing team keeps saying over and over that a whole collection of Delta Wings among 25+ teams could look as different as night and day from each other, there is no getting around the fact that the one that got built - even as only a rolling model - looks like a giant phallus on wheels.

Snarky sniggering aside, the second issue is the backbreaker for a lot of fans: the Delta Wing is not an open-wheeled car. The wheels are at least 50% covered by the bodywork - out of safety and efficiency, the DW team cries to deaf ears - and that automatically removes the Delta from the "open-wheel" category. And also, it's a tricycle, for Pete's sake! Sure, it's four-wheeled, but the front wheels are only separated because Bowlby and company were afraid that having just one wheel would be too much for fans to handle (BINGO!). The tricycle-appearing form factor has many fans wondering how the hell the Delta Wing will turn at high speeds, and no amount of "doubletalk" from the DW folks about computer assists or computational fluid dynamics or anything else seems to be able to dissuade them from their doubts.

But the thing that might ultimately torpedo the Delta Wing in the eyes of the ICONIC committee is the way that Delta Wing, LLC, has positioned themselves in their presentation as arbiters of chassis technology and the traffic cops for the flow of part approvals and designs based on DW's so-called "open source" platform. That's a lot of control to cede to a third party by anyone's reasoning, and the fact that many of the team owners in the league back the Delta Wing project has some folks wondering if the situation might turn into another owners vs. league situation - the likes of which nearly destroyed the sport fifteen years ago.

The manufacturers that remain all share a similar philosophy - that is, in order for the financials to work for them, they need to be the sole, unchallenged supplier of IndyCar chassis for the entire league. The designs all look unique - from Swift's ever-growing catalog of eye candy to Dallara's more pedestrian renders to BAT's frankly head-scratching design - but the common thread from each is that they do not want competition from other builders.

The jury is out about whether this demand is more of a legitimate expression of financial viability than simply vocalizing the builders' monopolistic self-interest. But anyone hoping to see variety on the track will likely be disappointed to learn that outside of varying paint schemes there will be very little visual distinction if a non-Delta-Wing manufacturer gets the ICONIC recommendation.

The notable exception is Lola, whose presentation appears to be the most practical of the lot. While Lola does not buck the trend of requiring exclusivity, at least they provide two very intriguing aspects to sweeten the deal. First, the Lola car will share a common tub across both the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Firestone Indy Lights Series, which reduces both costs and the learning curve for aspiring drivers. Also, Lola's presentation includes two "variants" of the IndyCar chassis that look visually distinct while being roughly equal in performance.

One option that has been gaining fan support of late has been the idea of a common tub instead of a full rolling chassis. The tub would be provided by one of the presenting manufacturers and conform to all safety regulations, while the rest of the car would be built from parts supplied by third-party builders. While this solution would definitely signal a return to the type of race car development that IndyCar has been famous for during most of its history, it would certainly be the most expensive option available to the ICONIC panel.

The great unknown here is the thinking of the ICONIC panel and who among the prospective builders might have an iron in the fire. With the engine issue, appeasing Honda was a critical aspect of ICONIC's processes. One wonders whether Dallara might not be thrown a bone because of their history with IndyCar this decade, as well as the proven safety of their tub which was illustrated so graphically this year at Indianapolis. Another question is the amount of change IndyCar is willing to make in their car specification - how conservative or radical does CEO Randy Bernard want to be? Does he go after the headlines and buzz, or does he proceed cautiously with incremental, evolutionary steps for the near future with an eye towards further changes down the road?

ICONIC's recommendation is due no later than two weeks from now. In the meantime, fans and insiders alike are waiting with bated breath to find out what face the future of their sport will wear.

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