Aesthetics Do Matter: My Main Concern with the 2012 Concept and How IndyCar Can Make It Work

Marshall Pruett had an interesting combination interview/commentary with Tony Cotman earlier this week.  While various parts of both Cotman's answers and Pruett's editorializing are noteworthy and are sure to spark disagreements, it was the photo at the top that caught my eye: a split image of a 1996 and a 2001 Reynard ChampCar.  It's a perfect illustration of what the caption says: even in CART's heyday, evolution was a slow process, and cars looked pretty much the same year to year, but that didn't seem to matter at the time.  It was still exciting racing that drew big crowds.  Now, however, everyone is clamoring for revolution, something new to grab the attention of the masses.  So what's changed?  I'll tell you: the current Dallara is ugly.  And based on the concepts shown, 2012's cars could end up just as ugly.  And that would be bad.

To explain my point, first let me make an example of NASCAR.  The COT, in it's winged configuration, was widely derided for how it raced and the car's tendency to turn into an airplane when turned around.  The belief among many fans (and some commentators) was that these problems were due to the wing, with varying degrees of science to back it up.  The wing made it difficult to see past the car in front.  The wing caused to much dirty air.  If the wing provides downforce forwards, then it must provide lift in reverse.  To them, the answer was simple: the spoiler.  It would solve all of NASCAR's problems. Even though a spoiler sticks up just as high and blocks just as much of a view.  Even though the spoiler caused dirty air before the COT.  Even though cars with spoilers still flipped before the COT.  What the spoiler did do was make the COT look more like the traditional stock car shape.  Aesthetically, the cars improved overnight, and the fans rejoiced.  That, to me, was the real basis of the complaints: the look.  The popularity and excitement over the new Nationwide cars, which look more like their street counterparts, bear this out.

IndyCar's current Dallara is not a fan favorite, and though the racing has been entertaining (save for the inevitable Red Car domination), it hasn't been pretty.  With it's needlelike nose and bulky airbox, the car looks unbalanced on ovals, and worse, ungainly on road courses.   It's a far cry from the elegant nimbleness of the Lola that exemplifies the best remembered times in the sport.  It's one of the reasons why both the Lola and Swift 2012 concepts were popular among fans - they both had basic shapes which hearkened back to those late-90s models, while still being modern and forward looking.  Meanwhile, Dallara too had some concepts which made an attempt to channel that nostalgia, but nothing that was as graceful or attractive.  Still, they were passable.

Then came the announcement.

At this point, I should mention that I stand with Pruett on the idea that different looking chassis don't mean a heck of a lot to me.  The gallery that accompanies his article has some fantastic comparison shots, like this one with a '97 Reynard and a '97 Swift.  Is the difference really that great?  In still shots, you really have to look to see what's different, and moreover, you need to be a hardcore enough fan to know where exactly to look.  For a casual fan, watching cars scream by at 200MPH?  The variations become negligible and insignificant.  Those geeks among us (I count myself as one) could be in for glorious times if the new strategy works as IndyCar says it will, and we get multiple aero packages to dissect and debate about.  Johnny A. Racefan in the stands?  He ain't gonna care so much.

What worries me about the announcement is what IndyCar and Dallara showed.  Slab sided, almost boxy looking cars with the sidepods set way too far back, and a nose that evolves the current car's signature (and ugly) cockpit bump.  It was a punch to the gut.  How could IndyCar bypass the elegant Lola or futuristic Swift for these?  The news thankfully got better as the presser went on, that only the driver's compartment, nose, radiator inlets and underwing would be set from the factory, and the rest of the car's aero would be open for development.  Phew.  There is still hope for attractive cars...except that the nose, radiator inlets, and underwing shape on the Safety Cell concept are exactly what look to have forced the ugly looks in the first place.  Uh oh.

It doesn't have to be this way, though.  It was later reported that what was shown were quickie renders made in 3 days to have something visual for the unveiling.  This is exceptionally good news, as it might mean the cars don't actually look like that.  And, it leads me to beg, plead and grovel to both IndyCar and Dallara to heed the following in designing the new Safety Cell:

  • Keep the nose as generic looking as possible. With minor variations in shape, the Lola and Swift concepts both have similar, simple, generic looking noses.  As does, to a lesser extent, the Panoz DP01, and even Dallara's own World Series car.   The shown concept nose is too reminiscent of the existing car, and will still effectively brand the cars visually as Dallaras.  Keeping this area generic places more emphasis on the aero kits and enhances their individual brands.
  • Move the underwing and aero inlets forward.  One thing which separates IndyCars from F1 visually is that the sidepods on IndyCars come almost to the front wheels, while they are further back and more distant on the F1 machines.  This would be a nice distinction to keep, and would also add much wanted advertising space.
  • Mandate blocking the back of the rear tires, but not how to do so. The Lola concept used a clever, tight-fitting contoured piece of carbon fiber construction on the back wheels to prevent tire-jumping while still keeping a distinct open wheel look.  It looks miles better than the sports car like fairings on the shown Dallara.  By letting aero package makers choose their own means of accomplishing this goal, it will help them create better flowing and more pleasing designs.
There is some hope even if the final design ends up looking like the concepts.  The few early submissions to IndyCar's "contest" have been impressively attractive.  IndyCar should try to direct kit makers to keep aesthetics in mind as much as outright performance.  Yes, how the new cars race is important, as is innovation and variety, but if the new generation can be beautiful enough to capture imaginations and eyeballs, then the future of open wheel racing in America will be as bright as ever.

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