The buzz for the 2012 IZOD IndyCar Series season has been tempered by teething and development issues as the season opener approaches. (Photo: Chris Jones/INDYCAR)
One of the things that excited many of us about the ICONIC Committee's new technical specifications for the next-generation IndyCar platform was the incorporation of aero kits.
The aero-kit-plus-safety-cell paradigm at once offered visual and performance differences between teams and still kept the same fundamental standards for basic safety and build quality for the car itself. The ultimate aero kit concept was a blending of Lola's proposed "multi-variant" 2012 concept, which provided a base car and two different visual packages that were aero-matched, and the Delta Wing's philosophy of providing a template spec for bodywork that could be modified and developed by third-party manufacturers.
Although some hardcore fans thought that aero kits didn't go far enough towards revolution (or even evolution), it was actually a tremendous job of compromise between rewarding the one chassis manufacturer who was willing to meet the requests of the sanction while still offering other manufacturers the chance to participate and brand within the series. As INDYCAR crept closer and closer to the 2012 season, fan anticipation grew correspondingly higher.
Then INDYCAR announced that aero kits were to be delayed until 2013. You could almost taste the collective disappointment... but as it turns out, it was the right decision.
Why? One only has to look at the issues INDYCAR has had to deal with concerning engine manufacturers and the question of demand and supply.
It's been nearly a decade since INDYCAR has seen more than one engine manufacturer in its top level series - longer still since the engine specifications and technical regulations have had such a radical alteration as we are seeing for 2012.
Perhaps we were all lulled into a false sense of security by Honda's bulletproof Indy V8 motors which, bereft of any competitors, were far enough away from the ragged edge of performance as to appear incapable of fault. That misconception has been quickly eradicated by the struggles experienced by the automaker with its new turbocharged IndyCar engine which, to put it politely, has had several teething issues.
Then, too, we have learned about the difference between establishing minimums and manufacturers' willingness to go beyond them. The recent panic about Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing's engine supply was only alleviated by a 12th-hour audible called by Bobby Rahal, who ended up gifting SFHR his second Honda engine lease that was meant for Italian Luca Filippi, who now finds himself on the sidelines. Ed Carpenter Racing got a Chevrolet lease, but because it was an "extra" lease that went beyond the minimum series requirement ECR apparently had to pay a monetary premium to land the deal.
Of course, Honda and Chevrolet have at least met their minimum quotas. Lotus - they of the classic liveries and byzantine political machinations - have struggled to provide a half-dozen of their Judd-built powerplants... half of the minimums met by their two peers. If that were not enough, they have also had to repeatedly fend off whispers that they are not even solvent enough to persist past the Indianapolis 500.
On the chassis side, the amount of work and development done in a short time both by the INDYCAR technical braintrust and Dallara themselves has been astounding with regards to the evolution of the DW12. The DW12, of course, is the "safety cell" car upon which all future aero kits will be mounted, but it also boasts the first actual aero kit developed by Dallara. Considering how many issues the Dallara aero kit has seen on ovals so far, the fact that it is the only one currently in development can be looked at as a boon for everyone involved.
In fact, the number of moving pieces in play in such a compressed time frame is frankly incredible. Those who see the glass as half-empty need to remember that at this moment, INDYCAR is seeing concurrent development of brand new technical regulations, which include chassis and engine rules, as well as a brand new race car and a totally new aerodynamic package - all of which began their lives less than a year ago.
I'll be honest with you - the fact that they won't be riding Schwinn bicycles when the green flag waves at St. Petersburg in late March is astonishing.
I can sympathize with those fans who would like to see a half-dozen different engine manufacturers working in INDYCAR and a similar number of aero kit designers in the bargain. And I will admit to being one of those who initially thought that the aero kit delay was a crushing blow for INDYCAR.
I have, however, changed my tune, and I'll tell you why. Dallara's testing on the "base" aero kit for the DW12 safety cell is building an information base upon which a new aero kit designer can develop. Anyone who has ever taken a college test using study group notes will acknowledge just how much more awesome it is than relying on your own half-conscious notes. By creating a solid baseline, Dallara is making it more enticing for manufacturers with interest but no commitment as yet to lean towards participation in 2013 - certainly moreso than developing one from scratch, especially given the price maximums established by the series for the sale of aero kits when they are finally approved.
Is that fair for Dallara - creating a corpus of R&D that other builders can use as crib sheets for next season? Well, considering the exclusivity of their chassis building program, yes it is. Building an aero kit will be a terrific way for other manufacturers to get a branding and promotional foothold in INDYCAR without having to develop a complete racecar, but it won't be a profit-making exercise for them.
The delay also gives fans something new to look forward to in 2013, and the importance of that can't be understated given how much good buzz has surrounded INDYCAR in the prelude to this season. There is more demand than supply in terms of new teams and opportunities for 2012, and even so the IZOD IndyCar Series should still see the biggest roster of full-time entries in many years. A big reason for this is equalization of competition - there are no guarantees yet about which combination and package will be predominant. Once aero kit development is opened to multiple manufacturers, a new element of uncertainty will be added to the mix - and uncertainty is one of the spices that makes racing more flavorful.
As a fan, it's pretty great to be excited for the next two seasons. It's been way too long since I've been able to say that.