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Cotman's engine rule decisions will make or break IndyCar's future

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Will the IZOD IndyCar Series see signage from other manufacturers besides Honda in 2012?  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Will the IZOD IndyCar Series see signage from other manufacturers besides Honda in 2012? (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
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To seize everything you ever wanted in one moment
Would you capture it? Or just let it slip?
Eminem - Lose Yourself

(Author's note: This is an updated version of an article previously written with changes made based on more expert knowledge than my own. Thanks to POV readers Oben and JagtechOhio for clarifying critical issues for me.)

So Robin Miller got his wish, and Tony Cotman is the new head honcho for the IZOD IndyCar Series' rules.

Miller prefaced his scoop by saying that Cotman's hiring was "a move called for by fans, the paddock and many journalists," but let's be honest here - it was Miller himself who was pushing the hardest and calling the loudest for Cotman to take the reins.

Cotman, according to Miller, is the only guy with the foresight, the objectivity, and the straight gonads to make the right decisions for the series' technical future. Miller points to Cotman's tenure in Champ Car and the way he rode herd on the series' short-lived but well-received Panoz DP-01 racecar as evidence that Cotman is the correct guy for the IndyCar job.

Well, 2012 is not far away and Cotman's got a big stack in his to-do pile. But there's one decision that is going to be the make-or-break for the 2012 IndyCar and, perhaps, for the long-term health of the series itself. That's where Miller's faith in Cotman needs to be validated - and where Cotman can create the most attractive atmosphere possible for new investment in the IndyCar series..

Most likely, most IndyCar fans didn't know what the difference was between a "stressed" and "non-stressed" engine until very recently. In fact, it is very likely that many of them still don't know the difference - to them, the terms are virtually meaningless.

But to a subset of very technically-minded fans and industry observers, they are two of the most important phrases you could possibly come up with at this point in racecar powerplant evolution.

Now, I am no technical wizard - go talk to Marshall Pruett over at SPEED if you want a discussion with one of those - but I'll do my best to give you the "dummy's guide" to the difference between stressed and non-stressed engines. This is something you'll need to know if you are to understand why Cotman's first major decision on the job is the decision about which to legislate for the IZOD IndyCar Series.

A stressed engine is a powerplant that is custom-built for a particular racecar chassis. It is also occasionally called a bespoke engine from a British phrase that originated in the tailoring field. The stressed or bespoke engine is manufactured as a purpose-built powerplant to become a part of the racecar frame itself and therefore becomes a rigid load-bearing component. Think of your house - certain walls are facades, while others are load-bearing. You can remove the facade walls with little effect on the overall structure, but try taking out a load-bearing wall... well, you don't want to be inside when that happens.

A non-stressed engine is an engine that is adapted into a particular race car, often by means of a cradle or tube frame that surrounds and supports the powerplant. In these cases, the engine itself does not bear force directly - the frame or cradle is responsible for this. A non-stressed engine requires more space in the engine compartment because of the necessity of the support and mounting mechanisms. Access to some engine components may be more restricted as a rule because such components are not custom-designed with a particular chassis and circumstances in mind.

The IZOD IndyCar Series and, indeed, most major top-line open-wheel racing series around the globe, have for years used stressed engines in their technical packages. Stressed engines offer considerable chassis rigidity because of their integration with the car's frame and load-bearing ability. They also result in considerably lighter car weights and a significant savings in workable space in the engine compartments. Stressed engines are easier to service and access because they are built to be so. Stressed engines also provide for a lower center of gravity which, paired with the weight savings, improves handling and performance particularly on road and street circuits.

The downside to stressed engines is that, again, they are purpose-built for their racing enterprises. Consequently, the cost to develop these engines is significantly higher than that for a production-based powerplant, and as a result stressed engines are more costly for teams overall. In fact, for years IndyCar engines have been leased, not purchased, from manufacturers such as Honda and Toyota because of the rather exorbitant price tag that a team would have to pay to own one.

Many racing series - most notably sports car series like the American Le Mans Series and Grand American Road Racing Series - have moved towards non-stressed, production-based "stock block" engines as a means of cutting down costs-to-own and encouraging manufacturer involvement. It has been widely suggested that the IZOD IndyCar Series might also benefit from allowing non-stressed engines as part of their 2012 rules package.

However, the ICONIC committee's recommendation - a recommendation signed off on by Tony Cotman, among others - was to stick with the bespoke/stressed purpose-built IndyCar engine going forward. Apparently, the advantages of supporting "stock block" production-based engines were outweighed by the technical benefits that employing a stressed-member powerplant would deliver. Cost savings, therefore, would have to be legislated into the series via the written series rules and not by the technology itself.

With that in mind, several key challenges now face the IndyCar series in terms of making a stressed, purpose-built engine relevant to manufacturers. There is a movement afoot in racing engine manufacture away from purpose-built powerplants and towards production-based racing engines that are ecologically friendly. From Ford's EcoBoost V6 to the Global Racing Engine, the impetus is pushing strongly towards smaller, greener, cheaper engines. 

It is likely much better for you, the reader, that I grossly oversimplify and overgeneralize matters at this point to keep from launching into a detailed, prosaic, and thoroughly uninformed harangue about engine manufacturer strategies, global automotive planning, and industry minutiae. For IndyCar fans, the critical thing to remember is this: most auto manufacturers these days want to build, race, and promote production-based engines, not purpose-built racing motors.

The fact that the Dallara "safety cell" will be built to accommodate a stressed engine - more specifically, Honda's twin-turbo V6 stressed engine - runs directly counter to that direction in the automotive industry. What that means for 2012 - and, most likely, beyond - is 33 Dallara/Honda entries at the 2012 Indianapolis 500.

Why? Because Honda has been developing their stressed IndyCar engine for years now. They have a massive head start on anyone else that would want to even consider building a purpose-built IndyCar engine - excepting, perhaps, Cosworth Engineering, the company that supplied the Champ Car World Series with turbocharged engines until that series merged with IndyCar.

Beyond that, however, is a philosophical divide between automakers who want to align their racing platforms closely with their consumer offerings and a series whose engine regulations make that a difficult task indeed. As it stands now, the type of purpose-built racing engine likely to be seen in 2012 and beyond is irrelevant to almost every engine manufacturer's developmental and promotional road maps. Moreover, the "open arms" approach that IndyCar officials would like to show to the automotive world - "If you build it, you can race" - looks far less welcoming when it is understood that not only would the manufacturers need to build brand-new powerplants from scratch, but they would have to spend years looking silly against Honda's turbo V6 before working out all of the bugs and achieving competitive performance levels.

That's a hard sell, my friends. Which is why virtually every manufacturer that IndyCar officials have met with has expressed guarded interest for IndyCar's future but have shied away from even considering a commitment until things are more clear in the rules department. So significant is the investment needed to devise, research and develop, and track-test a purpose-built IndyCar engine in the space of less than 18 months that it will need to be worth the manufacturers' investment to do so.

This is where Cotman's job will be the hardest. As the author of the new 2012 engine rules, he will need to develop equivalency formulae that make the prospect of developing, say, a purpose-built Inline-4 turbo engine something other than an exercise in futility. He will need to provide incentives for potential manufacturer investors to come on board without risking alienating his current manufacturer investor - Honda Performance Development. Closely tied with this daunting task is the effect that aero kits will have on powerplants, and with only two aero kit manufacturers on board for 2012 (Dallara and Lotus) the picture could not possibly be murkier.

That is why IndyCar fans the world over need to hope that Robin Miller's incessant shilling of his pal Tony Cotman is not just smoke on the wind. Cotman has proved to be intelligent and forceful in the past, but given the Herculean character of his upcoming task he will need to exceed every standard of excellence the IndyCar series has held for the past decade or more.

Robin Miller thinks Cotman has it in him. Whether he is right or not will only be answered in time.